More Escapist Fiction

 

Still in despair by our country’s current political environment and horrified by the catastrophes unfolding in Washington, D.C., I am seeking relief (or hiding) in various ways. I tried floating in a epsom salt float tank and loved it…more about that later. I am getting back into yoga and grateful to have so many good studio options in and near Evanston. Most of all, I am reading a lot and taking advantage of my EPL card.

In quick succession I enjoyed these three mysteries and a tear-jerker: The Dry by Jane Harper, a first-time novelist; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, author of the wonderful and highly acclaimed, Room; and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

The Dry takes place in a section of Australia that has not seen any rainfall for two years. The land and everything on it is withering..cracking..dying. Crops won’t grow and livestock can’t survive. Financial ruin is everywhere. As the book opens, Aaron Falk, a federal agent, is en route to the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Aaron hasn’t been home in twenty years and is determined to spend as little time as possible in town, counting down the hours until he can leave without seeming rude. It seems Luke snapped due to the impending loss of his farm and shot his wife and young son, sparing only his infant daughter, before killing himself.

Twenty years ago Luke provided an alibi for Aaron when a young woman was reported missing. This mutual friend later turned up dead. Despite Luke’s insistence that Aaron and he were together, town gossip blamed Aaron for the death and effectively chased him and his father out of town. Luke’s father knows the boys lied and asks Aaron to stay in town a few extra days to see if Aaron can help clear Luke’s name. In addition to the unrelenting heat, the gossip and cliques within the community add their own type of oppressiveness, where the past is never really over and everyone seems to know everybody else’s business. The story builds logically bit by bit over the course of a week until its dramatic and combustible conclusion. The Dry is a fun read, perfect for a beach vacation or long flight.

The Woman in Cabin 10  is a psychological mystery. Lo, a travel writer, is under tremendous stress and possible PTSD due to a recent attack during a break-in at her home and later, an argument and possible split with her boyfriend. The timing of both events could not have been worse as she is scheduled to leave in two days on a highly anticipated press junket aboard a luxury yacht trip en route to see the Aurora Borealis. The break-in has left her unable to sleep without alcohol to blot out her nightmares. In her boozy haze the first night out to sea, Lo is convinced she hears and sees a woman being tossed overboard from the cabin next to hers. She notifies the ship’s staff, but the room is unoccupied and no one is unaccounted for among the ship’s staff or guests. The ship’s security officer politely but firmly dismisses her concerns and suspects she is hallucinating, imagining things because of her recent break-in, hung over or a combination of all of the above. To complicate things further, the WiFi on the ship is not working and Lo is unable to receive or to send emails. Is she going crazy? Paranoid? Is there a secret killer on the ship that only she sees? Combine fuzzy memories, a disoriented sense of time and personal space, and ample self-doubt for a toxic mix. Similar in some ways to The Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a challenging whodunit with a surprise twist ending.

If you liked the tension and insular world of Room, I think you’ll enjoy The Wonder. Emma Donoghue has created another tight, restrictive environment, this time in 1859 Ireland. For the past four months, since her eleventh birthday, Anna has stopped eating save for a few teaspoons of water each day. A deeply religious young girl, Anna’s family and neighbors believe she is a living miracle in their midst. The local priest has doubts and wants to be certain Anna is a true miracle, so a group of townspeople hires two nurses to watch over Anna at all times for two weeks to determine if she is sneaking food or, as Anna maintains, living off of “manna from heaven.” One of the nurses is a young widow, trained by Florence Nightingale, and determined to uncover the scheme. Much to her surprise, Lib is charmed by Anna and believes her to be sincere, if not misguided.

Despite 24-hour surveillance, Lib and other nurse, Sister Michael, are unable to find hidden food or determine how Anna might be getting any sustenance. All outward physical signs show that Anna is slowly dying, yet no one — not her physician, her priest, her parents, her cousin who lives with them, or the other nurse, Sister Michael — is doing anything to actively save Anna from certain death. Why is the child willingly starving herself? And how can Lib save Anna before being run out of town, since Lib’s ‘by the book’ manner and irreligious approach have already provoked the ire of the local priest, the family doctor, and Anna’s parents. The Wonder is a story of love, commitment, and redemption. claustrophobic at times, the intensity builds as Anna deteriorates, but the end is nothing short of miraculous.

I know I’m late to the party about A Man Called Ove as it’s been in print since 2012, but better late than never. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is almost mean and very rigid, and he is determined to commit suicide to end his troubles. Thing is, his plans keep getting waylaid by the people around him…boisterous neighbors, a pushy cat, fainting commuters…there is no end to the interruptions! But little by little, his icy heart starts to thaw. This is his story. I loved this book — I laughed out loud more than once and was charmed to tears as the story of Ove’s life was slowly revealed. If you need a feel-good book to read or give, this is the one.

Happy reading!

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Social Disconnect

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, from my Aunt Sue, who had read it as part of the syllabus for a college course she audited last fall. It was November, shortly after the election, and I was still in a fog of disbelief about the results. She recommended it as essential reading and promised it would explain a lot.

A few weeks later I was browsing for a gift in a small book store and asked the owner if she had noticed any differences in her customers’ purchasing habits since the election. She acknowledged that, indeed there were changes. In the days immediately after the election, there was hardly any store traffic. No one was in the mood to shop; people were hunkering down. But after a few days, things got back to normal — whatever that is — and she had two types of requests: non-fiction (explain the election, how did this happen?) or fiction (get me out of here, this can’t be happening).  In the former category, two books were in hot demand, White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy. 

In Isenberg’s White Trash, “the poor are always with us,” and labeling the underclass of poor whites implies “an imposed inheritance” that almost invariably prevents them from escape and encourages demonization if not blame. For them, the American dream of upward mobility is largely “unobtainable.”

First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy. (p. xv, White Trash)

The book is long, dense, and at times, tedious. Isenberg weaves the history of how the poor in this country have been treated and viewed as expendable fodder as far back as the 1500s when the land was a colonial outpost of Great Britain and a dumping ground for undesirables. There are three main themes: the importance of our country’s rural past; the pervasive role class hierarchy plays in the United States; and how land ownership and class are connected, in that “the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland.” By the time these themes reach the likes of Honey Boo Boo and the current economic struggles of the lower rungs of the 99%, I was pretty discouraged although much better informed.

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of an unusual childhood. J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio with deep family ties in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He was raised by his grandparents; his mother had substance abuse problems throughout his early years and he nearly failed out of high school…except he didn’t, because of the love and support of a few people and a fair amount of luck. He graduated high school, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, graduated from Ohio State in two years, and graduated from Yale Law School. He made it out and he made it big.

The majesty of  Vance’s story is learning why, amidst such a chaotic start, he did not give up on himself and why he did not give in to the despair, pessimism, and cynicism all around him. He describes growing up in deep poverty with familial violence as a norm. Years later he learns that the yelling, fighting, and abuse he and his sister experienced had a name–“adverse childhood experiences”–and that children with multiple ACEs are statistically more likely to experience adverse health and behavioral issues. He is unabashedly loyal to his family and loves them unconditionally, but he is clear about the bad choices his family and neighbors have made and the impact those choices have had on their lives and on the lives of the children in their care.

Vance despairs about the rampant drug addictions tearing through his hometown, and how unprepared its residernts are to confront a knowledge-based economy. He assigns both fault and credit to certain aspects of government programs, family decisions, and cultural norms. Vance doesn’t pretend to speak for all of his kin or neighbors, but he does present a portrait unfamiliar to many Americans and one that is helpful to understand. He writes with objective emotion and sensitivity; he is not bitter or vengeful, and surprisingly forgiving, accepting, and understanding of his mother. He recognizes he is lucky to have had loving grandparents who instilled him with good values and self-confidence and good mentors who believed in him and taught him about things he was never exposed to at home.

Neither White Trash nor Hillbilly Elegy are the definitive answer about how and why our country elected this president, but they are important parts of the conversation. I recommend them.

 

 

 

 

 

Pick Your Tree Carefully

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.

 

After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.

Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.

I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.

There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.

She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.

The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best of Evanston

ew_suptspotlight_video2015Dr. Eric Witherspoon gets my vote for Person of the Year. He is an inspiring speaker and educational leader. He cares deeply about the students at Evanston Township High School. But the pitch perfect message he delivered over the loudspeaker the morning after the election resonated in the school’s classrooms, across the houses and apartments of Evanston, and soon went viral across the country. This short epistle is only 275 words, but together they are more riveting than all the Tweets, speeches, and position papers leading up to the election and more comforting than all the ones that followed. Read it again to be re-inspired; save it for future reference in the coming months. I suspect we are going to need it.

northwestern-universityNorthwestern University is a great corporate citizen within Evanston. It is the city’s top employer and an essential contributor and participant within the social fabric of Evanston. It offers a beautiful lakefront campus and a calendar filled with lectures and first-class musical, theatrical, athletic, and cinematic entertainment, much of it open to the public. It is the home of groundbreaking research and Sir Fraser Stoddart, one of 2016’s Nobel Prize recipients. I am a fan of the Jazz Small Ensembles and National Theatre Live at the Wirtz. Come join me.

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The beautiful lakefront of Lake Michigan serves as my backyard. I love the bike path that winds around its edge and the serenity I feel whenever I pass by. The view from Northwestern looking south toward Chicago never fails to inspire me…as well as remind me of Oz, the Emerald City.

 

aylas

Evanston fosters a wonderful environment for small businesses and creative, artistic stores. One of my favorites is Ayla’s Originals, a shop that inspires, encourages, and provides supplies and lessons to beaders (those who bead) all over the North Shore. I originally visited Ayla’s for some assistance with jewelry repairs, but was drawn in by the friendly atmosphere and wonderful sense of community. Ayla’s offers a fantastic selection of beads from all over the world — including rare, collectible, and antique ones — as well as an array of individualized classes on techniques of jewelry-making. Take a class and see if this craft is for you. Treat yourself: do something creative every day.

We love to read in Evanston and there are many great bookstores catering to bibliophiles as well as a fantastic public library system. My favorite bookstore is Bookends & Beginnings for its fantastic selection, personalized service, great recommendations, and cozy atmosphere.  But there are others. Try Chicago Rare Book Center, tucked away on Washington Street; they specialize in children’s books, modern literature, jazz and blues, art, Chicago, the Midwest, and Americana. Comix Revolution specializes in comics and graphic novels. And if those specialties are not niche enough for your tastes, try Montagnana Books. They focus on books and collectibles about the violin family.

Happy reading, biking, and beading. As Dr. Witherspoon advises, “Let’s protect and take care of each other. Everything is going to be okay.”

Thoughts About Death and Life: When Breath Becomes Air

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. (pp. 131-132)

Bibliophiles know about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: the heartbreaking memoir of a highly gifted (degrees from Stanford University, University of Cambridge, Yale School of Medicine) neurosurgeon and writer who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 35, only months away from completing his surgical training. The book is dedicated to his infant daughter, the child he and his wife, also a doctor, chose to have after his diagnosis.

Of course the book is sad and poignant for many reasons: first and foremost, because his daughter will grow up without her father. His wife, whom he loved deeply, is now a widow. He was incredibly talented and on the cusp of realizing the pinnacle of his professional training. Given his expertise, he could have helped many more people. Now all that is for naught. His premature end is both tragic and cosmically wasteful. And yet his life was rich and full of meaning.

When Breath Becomes Air is a brave book. Death hovers on almost every page, but the book is not macabre. It’s beautifully written, and at times, even profound in what Kalanithi observes; his perspective shifts back and forth between writer as doctor and writer as patient. He observes death, is aware of death, even feels the presence of death as a medical student and throughout the stages of his training. He writes about how his training taught him to “actively engage with death” and thus, to “confront the the meaning of life.” Being a doctor meant assuming mortal responsibility, and it was a responsibility he embraced forcefully and with passion. Kalanithi was a man who ran toward challenges.

Near the end of his life, contemplating the brief overlap of his life with that of his daughter’s, he muses about what wisdom he can leave her. The message he wrote is this:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing. (p. 199)

 

The idea of ‘providing a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world’ is one of the book’s central ideas. As Kalanithi’s disease progresses and various drugs and treatments he is pursuing lose their effectiveness, his options narrow and the time he has left dwindles. He mourns the losses of his life, of dreams not realized, children he and his wife would not have together, of not growing old with the one you love. But he accepts these hard truths and strives to make the most of his remaining time, energy, and concentration. He labors to complete this book, to leave some tangible record of his thoughts, before the cancer overtakes him.

For each of us, the idea of what we have meant to the world, is unique and intensely personal.   Kalanithi made his life matter. He made a difference to those around him and touched many, mostly strangers, with his thoughts about making the most of his remaining time. A teacher and researcher to the very end, he found ways to contribute at Stanford even when he could no longer operate or treat patients. You will think about this compact book long after you complete it.

Remembering Oliver Sacks

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I’ve been a fan of Oliver Sacks‘ ever since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. Dr. Sacks was a masterful storyteller; his TED description lists him as a neurological anthropologist. What I loved most about both Sacks’ style and subject matter was how he made science, especially all things medical, both relatable and understandable. The reader did not need to be an expert to empathize with each compelling tale.

His two most recent books, published in the year prior to his death on August 30, 2015, are Gratitude and On the Move, and they couldn’t be more different. Gratitude is a compact reflection of what it means to live a worthwhile life. The four essays that make up this tiny book were previously published in the The New York Times; each essay is powerful and thought-provoking. The writer is at peace and satisfied with the life he has lived.

On the Move is a memoir that expounds upon Sacks’ growth and development into the person he became. Whereas his earlier memoir Uncle Tungsten recounts his childhood, family, and love for the periodic table, On the Move describes adult successes and failures, both professionally and personally, from high school through a year or two before the end of his life.

The instant the librarian handed me the book, I did a double take examining the photo on the book jacket. The virile and handsome man on the motorcycle seems light years away from the grandfatherly looking and kind man I thought I knew. How did one become the other?  The journey spanning sixty or so years makes up this brave and honest book. He shares painful subjects: his mother’s hurtful comment when learning that her son had homosexual desires; unrequited loves; drug addiction; professional failures. I never imagined or knew he was painfully shy or that his approach toward treating his patients was considered radical and untraditional.

Sacks’ knowledge base was grounded in philosophy, nineteenth century medical histories, and his fascination with the world around him. He was a geek of the first order. He won a prize while in high school or college and with the money bought a used set of the Oxford English Dictionary…which he then proceeded to read and finish. (A new set today consists of 20 volumes and costs $1,045.)

He was an expert in flora and fauna, animals, geology, words, music, and countless other subjects. He was endlessly curious, but without judgement or fear. He traveled extensively, always documenting his voyages with photographs, notes, and essays. He kept journals religiously from the time he was a young teen, as well as copies of his voluminous correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues all over the world. He loved reading, writing, and learning, and was most comfortable with his own company. He swam nearly every day; water was where he did his best thinking.

Sacks’ brain was big. He revised his work constantly and gave his editors agita because he insisted on adding seemingly countless footnotes. His mind was expansive and his desire to share, to let all of us–his readers, his fans, and acolytes–in on the riches he saw and experienced, at times made the books long or even tedious. Yet reading about his adult life and the experiences that shaped him, I am convinced that his sharing this knowledge was an act of love.

I wish I had had a chance to meet and speak with him. His TED talk on visual hallucinations complements his fascinating books.

 

Strong Women

Jeff_combined photosLast week I read Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negrolandin anticipation of an April book discussion at the Evanston Public Library. The discussion can’t come soon enough; I am eager to talk to someone–anyone–about this book. Here is how the book begins:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.

I related to part of this underlying tension. The town where I grew up from the age of five until I graduated high school was a small suburb about an hour northeast of Philadelphia. We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, and while there were other Jewish families in our neighborhood, they weren’t prevalent. The nearest synagogue was 20 minutes away by car. In elementary school, more than once I was the only one not celebrating Christmas, and I felt that distinction keenly.

It’s not as if I wanted to celebrate Christmas or was embarrassed to celebrate Chanukah. I did not like was the scrutiny of ‘otherness,’ of feeling like an exotic exhibit outside the safety and security of my home. Otherness often felt isolating, more peculiar than special. Margo experienced a similar flavor of otherness as a black girl throughout her childhood.

Body image is a struggle for many women, and Margo navigated issues dealing with the shade of her skin tone, hair care, and thick lensed glasses due to poor eyesight. She excelled academically, athletically, and musically. Even with all of these accomplishments–and she writes of the period before she won the Pulitzer Prize!–I think this must have been a difficult book to write. She mined her psyche as well as her memories and the memories of her friends and relatives. She is brutally honest about opportunities provided to her and her sister as a result of her parents’ education, and equally candid about the limitations they faced because of racism. The book is not bitter, merely revealing in heart-wrenching detail.

After Negroland, Beyoncé’s new song and video, Formation, suddenly seemed very relevant. I don’t know if I would have thought about the song and accompanying video in any depth except for the kerfuffle surrounding the video’s unannounced presence the day before the Super Bowl. I watched and listened, then did it again. I read about the critics’ and public’s reactions to each, and then watched again.

Brava Beyoncé! Already scrutinized and reviewed countless times, the video offers a proud and unapologetic stance on being a powerful black woman. She is proud of who she is and where she came from. Beyoncé ties in images of and references to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. (Many of the references I did not understand until I read some of the commentary about the video. Read one here, here, and here. There are plenty of others.) She is a woman in control of her career and her personal life. She revels in the power and friendship of sisterhood. She is proud of her body. She does not shy away from making money and the power that comes with an elevated economic status.

Beyoncé is not apologizing for anything. Good for her. Negroland tells of dreams aborted or postponed; Beyoncé is proactively making her dreams happen. Knowing dreams can come true is good news for all of us.