Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997)

Anne Fadiman has written a deep and fascinating study of a Hmong family in America, thereby illuminating a piece of American culture as well. It's the story of Lia Lee, born in Merced, California to a family that originated in the highlands of Laos. Her epileptic seizures, starting when she was three months old, brought the family into contact with a medical community that wanted desperately to treat her illness; but while the Lees viewed the doctors as cold and threatening, the doctors viewed the family as negligent and 'non-compliant.'

The medical catastrophe that is Lia's life as recorded in her hospital charts stands in contrast to her family's love and care for her, and what they view as the spiritual crisis of her illness; neither side has any way to understand how the other sees the situation. Fadiman's art is to trace the vast gulf in world-view between the family and the doctors, so that the reader can appreciate how much everybody wanted to do the right thing for Lia, even as her condition worsened over time.

We are not left with blame or polemics, but with a glimmering of hope that--partly through books like this--hospitals and medical students are beginning to be aware than they will sometimes have patients who don't understand or believe their explanations of health and illness. The Spirit Catches You shows how rich that understanding could be.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Through the Children's Gate

Through the Children's Gate: A home in New York.
Adam Gopnik (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

There's a natural occupational hazard to this reviewing business, viz, other reviews. The Atlantic's year-end roundup says this of Through the Children's Gate: "A collection of the longtime New Yorker writer's essays about his family's return to Manhattan after five years of living in France. If you like your provincial cosmopolitanism delivered in flawless prose, then this charming, insufferable book is for you."

As we say at my house, 'Busted.'

No, but wait, it is for you--what's insufferable about it is merely that Adam Gopnik and his family are quintessential Stroller People, the yuppie generation who discovered child-bearing after making enough money to try to do it in the City: Minivan People, but with subways and taxis. (As it turns out, that very delay in marriage and child-rearing is part of what keeps New York economically viable: the city runs on young people who are willing to spend a decade or more in the mating dance, and who can't picture trying to do it in New Jersey.) Provincial cosmopolitanism, otherwise known as a sense of place, is just part of the deal. If you spend any time in New York, you have your own mental map, which you re-draw every time you use it; Gopnik has added some pleasing new features to mine.

In some cases, Gopnik is marking the end of something that once defined New York--who goes in for Freudian analysis any more? What was the World Trade Center before it was a symbol of financial imperialism? (A place you went for petty bureaucratic chores.) What ever happened to the Jewish comic tradition? "The fly doing the backstroke in the soup was part of a kind of chicken-soup synchronized-swimming event, as ordered and regulated as an Olympic sport: Jewish New York manners were a thing anyone could imitate to indicate 'comedy.' "--including the Cambodian cashier at the local bagel store, bullying Gopnik into increasing his Sunday morning order, just the way they do it at Zabar's.

Adam and Martha are raising city children: their daughter's imaginary friend is too busy to play with her, though sometime they bump into each other, hop into a taxi, and grab some coffee, in roughly the same way that the baby on "The Simpsons" drives a car. When Olivia's fish dies, it's complicated, because "Bluie was not really a fish at all. He was, like so many New York fish and mice and turtles, a placeholder for other animals that the children would have preferred to have as pets, but which allergies and age and sheer self-preservation have kept their parents from buying." Apartment life also means noise: a herd of elephants always lives upstairs from somebody, with the inevitable complaints and defenses; having kids puts Gopnik on the side of the elephants, who have to live somewhere, after all.

Gopnik's lovely prose is complemented by his grasp of how his topics fit together. After the Twin Towers are destroyed, his seven-year-old son, Luke, takes solace in competitive chess. "Life is like chess only because in life, too, you seize on a short-term tactic, stick to it, and call it wisdom, until it stops working and you have to learn another." Luke also becomes a Yankees fan. "Someday I will tell him about twenty-six, twenty-seven Series victories, but not just now. I want him to root for something that might not always work out." Sportsmanship; children trusting adults because they have no choice; the father trying to reign in his own competitiveness about his boy's games; and the importance of tactics you can be good at, to make up for the long run which you can never control--it adds up to ten minutes of reading you can chew on for days.

These are domestic essays, not claiming any final answers, but I should let Gopnik have the last word: "Manners matter; children count out of all proportion to their size; and the poetic impulse, however small its objects, is usually saner than the polemical imperative, however passionate its certitudes."
Amen, and hallelujah.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion (2005, Alfred A. Knopf)

Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly on December 30th, 2003; their only daughter, Quintana, had gone into the emergency room on Christmas morning with a case of the flu, the beginning of a cascade of medical catastrophes resulting in months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Ten months later, Didion sat down to write "The Year of Magical Thinking", in at attempt to "make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief...."
To make sense of these things as well as Didion does here is a tour de force, especially since part of what she is describing is a disordered process in her own mind. "Of course I knew John was dead. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible." Even after telling her daughter about John's death--three separate times, due to Quintana's own illness--even after the funeral, she can't give away his shoes, because he might come back and need them.
Quintana's illness takes Didion to Southern California, where she plans her daily routes to avoid the places she and John had frequented during the years they lived there, in an effort to exercise control over her memories. Naturally, it doesn't take more than a televised glimpse of the Malibu coastline to bring back the house where they lived when Quintana came home from the hospital. All trains of thought lead into hazardous territory; this uncontrollable quality is the insidious thing about grief.
"People in grief think a great deal about self-pity," Didion says. "We worry about it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as 'dwelling on it.' " Yet this condition that sound so shameful is the simple reality of the situation, of a loss that cannot be replaced or imagined out of existence. "There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back." The very impossibility of knowing for sure what her husband would have said about such and such a thing is proof that she didn't make him up, that he really was there across from her for forty years, and is no longer.
In due course, as the calendar no longer can say what Dunne was doing 'this time last year', Didion's life as a widow takes a new form. She has done a vivid, poetic job of capturing the transition from grief, something that happened to her, into mourning, something she did. May we all have the courage to follow that course, when the time comes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grace (eventually)

Grace (eventually): Thoughts on faith
Anne Lamott (2007, Riverhead Books)

In this, her third (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) volume about her adventures in faith and fear, Anne Lamott reports on another few laps of her spiritual journey. Her son, Sam, is now a teenager, and she's not allowed to talk much about him, but of course she does; also about her friends and their biopsies, her addiction-ridden California town and her aging body.
I'm interested in Lamott's view of aging, as it happens to us all. She thinks that we are, at any time, all the ages we've ever been. "I'm very glad to claim the crone who is coming to life within me. I just don't want her to screech so loudly that she silences the little girl who is still around, drowns out the naughty teenager, or mutes the flirtatious middle-aged woman." It's a view that can lead to compassion, and joy. Looking at pictures of her younger selves, more beautiful than she could believe at the time, she asks, "Why did it take me so long to discover what a dish I was? ...And how crazy would you have to be, knowing this, yet still not rejoicing in your current looks?"
With her church, she visits a nursing home to sing hymns and hug people, and brings her son along; with another friend, she helps out at a dance class with the developmentally disabled. This is material not everyone could pull off without making me feel manipulated as a reader, but Lamott can, because she takes gives equal attention to the details of the situation that are awkward, sad, and funny: "One of the men was huge and reminded me of somebody behind a butcher counter: sweaty, with a moustache disorder, a big gut, a baseball cap." It turns out you can't be a helper without dancing, yourself. "Then you do a pivot turn. It's surprisingly hard. I couldn't do it right. I cheated. I just turned. My entire childhood flashed before my eye: trying and failing to learn cheerleading moves, water ballet, chemistry."
The ability to confess a thing like that is the wellspring of Lamott's humor, and of her spirituality. The bumps and boulders of her path become the material of forgiveness and acceptance, with a healthy quota of resistance: "It wasn't until her death that my mother stopped exhausting me. Then I didn't forgive her for a while. All her friends and a few relatives hassled me to let it go, to forgive. But I did it my way, slowly, badly, authentically...."
This is authentic spirituality, like a raw carrot with the dirt still on it. It makes me twitch less than the fluffy pink kind, and I'm grateful for it once again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Barn in New England

A Barn in New England: Making a Home on Three Acres
Joseph Monninger (2001, Chronicle Books)
It's a little hard to figure out how this book got written. When did Monninger have time? It's a chronicle, more or less week by week, of the staggering amount of work that went into making a New Hampshire barn habitable by humans. I had not really considered why that is so: a barn is a deliberately porous structure, both so that the moisture exhaled by large animals won't cause it to rot, and so that hay can be stored without risk of catching fire. To make a barn a house, you have to insulate, cancelling out all that ventilation, or you'll never be able to heat the place. Monninger and his girlfriend, Wendy, also tackled the heating system itself (two giant stoves that consume wood or coal); a couple of serious problems with the foundation; a leaky roof; and three acres of gardens and meadow.
Again I say, all this before committing a word to paper? No, of course he was taking notes, and teaching his courses at a nearby college as well. Monninger gives us a full year of growth and change, rotating his attention among the barn itself, the surrounding acreage, and the family, which also includes a dog called D Dog, and Wendy's eight-year-old son, Pie. He expresses enthusiasm for this radical adventure without excessive sentimentality, repeatedly reminding us that there's always more wood to chop and split if the family is to make it through the New Hampshire winter. This labor of love is not everybody's calling in life, but it makes an admirable tale.

E-mail, August 2007

Friday, May 1, 2009

Alphabet Juice

Any Good Books, via e-mail
May, 2009

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Roy Blount Jr. (2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The big dilemma about reading Roy Blount’s Alphabet Juice is whether to start at A and march all the way through to ‘Zyzzyva,’ or to succumb to the distraction of the cross-references. Blount commends the latter course: “If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I’ve written it, you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you’ve read it all.” And the very first entry, ‘a’, contains a pointer to an irresistible story about, among other things, Wilt Chamberlain and the drinking habits of the editorial staff of Sports Illustrated. On the other hand, it would be a pity to miss a drop.
Whichever course you take, you’ll soon meet some of Blount’s linguistic enthusiasms. The alphabet itself, for starters: “I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We’re in a the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you’re like me, you feel like a pig in mud.” Why yes, I am, and I do.
He likes the feel of words in his mouth, and finds meaning in it. One of the most passionate arguments in the book is this, against the academic linguists’ claim that the connection between sounds and meaning is ‘arbitrary’: “ a principle of English-language appreciation, at least, separation of sound from sense is audibly, utterly wrong....Even when words aren’t coined with sound and sense conjunctively in mind, the words that sound most like what they mean have a survival advantage.”
As you see, he knows his way around a sentence as well. “I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yet-vagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind.” But isn’t that one a beaut!
Speaking of beauts, how’s that for a subtitle?! It looks a trifle excessive, at first, but it’s actually spot-on. Here’s the entry for ‘spot-on’: “This word for ‘perfect,’ as in ‘His imitation of Huckleberry Hound if he were a pirate is spot-on,’ is widely used as I compose this book, but it does not appear in any of my print dictionaries. Books can’t keep up with the language. But where would the language be without them?”
Sweet, don’t you think, the way Blount can turn on a dime from a prodigiously silly example to a profound, and incidentally self-observant, remark. As a professional wordsmith, of course, Blount is pro-book: “Actually holding a double handful of a substance made from handy. It gets your whole hands involved. Reading from a monitor, instead of a book, is like playing videogame football instead of tossing a football around.” (I’m well aware that most of you are reading this on a monitor of some sort, and Blount is no stranger to the wired world of words. Some of the most interesting entries spring from “the invaluable if sometimes only barely literate”)
Don McConnell and Karen Mugler did a superb job of copy-editing and proofreading Alphabet Juice. I can hardly think of a bigger challenge along those lines. It’s also hard to imagine how an audio book version will work, but it would indeed be marvelous to hear Blount reading it. In any case--Enjoy!