Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (audio)

five daysWell. This one is a lot to tell you about.

Sheri Fink is an award-winning journalist and holds both a PhD and an MD. In Five Days at Memorial, she examines fateful, famous and controversial events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans in the five days following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Forty-five bodies were recovered from the hospital, with about 9 of them (depending on your source) suspected of having been euthanized by hospital staff during evacuations. I had been looking forward to reading this book but was leery going in, because this subject was clearly going to be emotionally fraught, depressing, poignant. I was quickly mesmerized, though: these events, while troubling and difficult to take in, fascinated me deeply. I have been increasingly interested (outside my reading of this book, for some time now) in the subjects of end-of-life, advanced directives, and our culture’s approach to death. And I am always intrigued by ambiguity, situations in which it is clear to see black-and-white or right-and-wrong. If ever there were such a situation, this is it.

Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to relating the events of these five days, as revealed by Fink’s investigations. (Recall, as I mentioned in my book beginning, that she describes her copious research. I am fairly well convinced of its virtue.) We get to know a number of characters in the story: doctors, nurses, managers and administrators, patients and their family members. We know the ending, in a sense: the hurricane will be far worse than anyone imagined; the hospital will not be evacuated in one, two, three or four days; there will be crimes investigated. But the way the events unfold were unfamiliar to me in their details. Although this is a journalistic account, Fink also imbues it with suspense, which feels very natural: imagine the terror felt by those inside the hospital throughout. Not knowing the whereabouts or well-being of friends and family, isolated by rising floodwaters, without electricity, and plagued by rumor (on which more in a minute), a number of those inside Memorial feared for their lives. And some lost their lives.

The second half of the book describes the investigation of one doctor and (centrally) two nurses. Dr. Anna Pou was eventually called before a grand jury, which (some two years after Katrina) declined to indict her for multiple counts of second degree murder. In this section, we meet new characters, most notably two investigators who work as a comfortable team together. Fink also explores the history of euthanasia as a concept in different cultures and different legal understandings today, and the approach of bioethics, as well as post-Katrina attempts to establish emergency standards for triage, including the allocation of limited resources that will save some lives while ending others.

I was impressed by Fink’s style. I felt, in the end, that she let the facts (as she discovered them) stand alone. Many times throughout it felt like Fink’s voice spoke on one side of this painfully difficult controversy, but pages later she lent that voice to the other side, so that the effect was… shall I say, appropriately discomfiting. The fact is, I strongly feel, that none of us can perfectly know what happened in those five days, what anyone’s real motivation or intention was, and probably that none of us has the right entirely to judge actions taken in such profoundly weird circumstances.

Many questions remain, and I can easily understand and sympathize with divergent views: family members whose loved ones were (allegedly, possibly) euthanized are angry that they weren’t evacuated; hospital workers with no options left to them felt it was better to euthanize than to abandon patients to die slowly, painfully, and alone. I see it both ways. But the details, I think, are lost to me – someone who lived none of it, who’s just read the book. Dr. Pou, it appears, does not find this book’s treatment fair at all. While it’s true that Fink doesn’t exonerate her, I felt that she wasn’t condemned, either. It’s just… so complicated.

One of the more disturbing elements, to me, was the power of rumor and euphemism in the hospital and the accusations bandied about afterward. Doctors and nurses allegedly spoke of “making patients more comfortable,” or said “we won’t leave any living patients behind.” I don’t see how these vague phrases can be used to accuse someone of murder (or euthanasia, or what you like) – what if they literally just meant make someone comfortable? What if they meant that we will evacuate all living patients, thereby leaving none behind? I don’t think these statements necessarily point to killing people – certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt. And then the rumors: New Orleans after the storm saw violent crime and looting, but not (writes Fink) to the extent that it was rumored, within the hospital and more generally. Some of this fear and rumor was racially charged. Such a circumstance serves no one well.

In fact, the most damning evidence in Fink’s book for me was not the evidence that euthanasia had taken place – frankly, my value system allows for euthanasia as a fine option in certain circumstances – but the evidence that other hospitals faced similar challenges (loss of power, rising waters) and functioned better. I can’t recall the name at this moment (and the audiobook format is bad for looking up such things), but there was a hospital under analogous conditions that ran regular shifts – encouraging staff to sleep when not caring for patients – and sternly disallowed the spreading of rumors. (I think the phrase was something like “if you didn’t see it, don’t say it.”) Memorial saw a decidedly higher level of panic, and that was one of its critical failures. This can’t possibly be Dr. Pou’s fault: she’s just one person, incapable alone of preventing or inciting panic. In fact, as Fink presents it, if she did commit certain acts, she wasn’t alone; she was just singled out in investigations.

I can draw no conclusions after reading (listening to) this book, other than to say I think it was well told – visceral – and I am emphatic about the persistent ambiguity of this situation. In other words, I can’t judge, and I think it’s a little outrageous that anyone would try to. But I guess the justice system feels it has to try…

Narrator Kirsten Potter was well up to this task; full credit for the narration. I enjoyed this format for this book, but the major drawback for journalistic work is that I can’t flip back and check names, dates, etc.

Recommended, if you’re up for some tough topics and hearing about suffering.


Rating: 8 sleepless nights.

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.

stranger

James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pipe joints.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Marja Mills

Following yesterday’s review of The Mockingbird Next Door, here’s Marja Mills: Making Acquaintances.


Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was part of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O’Hare airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.

Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wis. She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden. Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,500).

marja

Did you have preconceived notions of what Nelle Harper Lee would be like? In what ways did she surprise you?

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought she might be quiet and reserved. Not so. She was gregarious much of the time, and witty. She loved to laugh. When she was telling a story that especially amused her, she’d take her glasses off, tip her head back and just laugh until she could finish what she was saying.

Nelle and her sister Alice–an attorney she calls “Atticus in a Skirt”–loved to get in Nelle’s Buick and explore the back roads. I’d read that the home she shared with Alice when Nelle wasn’t in New York was more modest than one might expect for an attorney and an author of her remarkable and enduring popularity. That was true. They lived simply, didn’t care about material things and had an eclectic group of good friends, from a Methodist minister and a librarian to a hairdresser and a bank president and his wife. Most were retired but still very active.

What about the Southern culture you encountered, in general? Any surprises there?

Being from the Midwest, I was surprised how many words in common usage in Alabama were new to me. Things such as mashing buttons instead of pushing them. Or using a buggy at the Winn Dixie instead of a grocery cart. That was a source of entertainment for the Lees and their friends: watching me learn local expressions. My favorite is an old-fashioned one that Nelle taught me: “journey proud.” It’s the excitement and apprehension before a trip that makes it hard to sleep.

How would you describe Harper Lee as you later came to know her?

My first day living next door in Monroeville, she left a note inviting me to dinner. That touched me. Soon she was calling to have afternoon coffee together, often at McDonald’s.

And of course you can’t know Nelle without knowing her sister Alice. Their lives were entwined and yet quite different, as were their personalities. Miss Alice, as she is known, is 15 years older than Nelle and there was another sister and a brother between them. As I wrote in the book, “even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.”

Both gave generously to the Methodist church and various charities. Nelle had been donating large sums, quietly and behind the scenes, for many years. As their Methodist minister friend, Tom Butts, said, she educated many people who had no idea she was their benefactor.

In what ways, if any, do you identify with Harper and Alice Lee?

They got lost in books as children, pulled into another world where you’re not just reading words on the page but living in the story, walking around in it. I was that way, too. Nelle’s eyes would dance, 70 years later, when she talked about being absorbed in the adventures of the Rover Boys.

Aside from many hours spent talking with Nelle and Alice, what research was involved for this book?

Some of the most valuable and enjoyable research I did was around kitchen tables and on porches, interviewing Lee friends and family. There were people I needed to talk to “while they still had their marbles,” as Alice put it. Or “while they’re still above ground,” as Nelle said. These were leisurely interviews but overall there was a sense of urgency, too, that if their stories about the town and the Lees weren’t preserved they would go with them to the grave.

Books were part of the research, too, naturally. I have rows and rows of them at home. Many of the titles were recommended by the Lees, with Alabama history and Southern fiction being two major categories. I enjoyed memoirs by Horton Foote, the playwright who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the film, and Wayne Flynt, the Alabama historian.

What was different about the writing process for this book, compared to your past experience as a journalist?

I had the opportunity to really get to know the people and the place I was writing about, to let them reveal themselves over time. That’s a luxury most journalists don’t have. Nelle and Alice did things on their own terms and on their own time. The way this experience unfolded gradually was more compatible with that that. “You let the river run,” was the way Rev. Butts put it.

You allude to the Lees’ approving what went in the book and what didn’t. How much were you asked to hold back?

Not as much as I expected. Much of what they said that was off the record was to spare the feelings of a friend or relative. When I lived next door, we talked about some of the things they especially wanted in the book. They resented Truman Capote’s characterization of their mother, for example. Both sisters described her as a gentle soul. I went over with them stories I wanted to share as well. I was ready to do much more of that but their approach was “use your own judgment.”

Has Nelle or Alice read this book? Any comment from them?

Because of their age and health–neither is able to live at home anymore–I don’t know that they’ll be able to read it but I think they’d enjoy reliving some of the adventures we had together. Age and diminished vision do take their toll. I’ve wondered sometimes how many books each has read in her lifetime. A staggering number; both were avid readers since childhood. Even in her 90s, Alice often had four books going at once. She told me about the time she and Nelle decided they would donate some of their books to the Methodist church.

Nelle set her jaw and tried to keep up her determination to part with some of the books. But then she would have second thoughts and retrieve them from the boxes they were trying to fill. Alice was no better. For all their generosity over the decades, books were hard to give away, even for their church. The evidence of that was the rising tide of books in their house. They had all shapes and sizes of bookcases, crammed where they could find space, and it still wasn’t enough.

In your book you make it clear that the Lees supported this project, but there was some press in 2011 regarding a statement from them indicating the opposite. Can you help us understand these conflicting reports?

I asked Alice Lee about it. Nelle was not living at home; she had a serious stroke in 2007. Alice issued a statement. She said that the first statement had gone out without her knowledge and did not represent her feelings or those of her sister. As far as I know, that put the matter to rest.


This interview originally ran on June 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

vocabulary lessons: The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

If you’re so inclined, see other vocabulary lessons here.


silentAs I wrote yesterday, Janet Malcolm is nothing if not academic; and she expresses this in her vocabulary and allusions. I made no shortage of notes. Here are a few words and references that I took the time to explore further.

asperity: “…writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling…”

Turandot: “presenting herself as a kind of Sphinx or Turandot before whom the various supplicants must appear…”

bathetic: “Plath, unable to eat or sleep, was running actual high fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity,” and again, “…sinks deeper and deeper into bitter bathos…”

Cerberus: “Olwyn ran a small literary agency in addition to her work as Cerberus to the Plath estate.”

transferential misprision! “(In 1956) …relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.” She’s showing off now, isn’t she?

lability: “Plath’s recording of the calm stealing over her after she left Sassoon’s house, and of her sense of her entitlement to the pleasures of Paris, wonderfully evokes the lability of feeling for which youth is famous…”

Racine’s Phèdre: “Women are demon spirits in the poem. They’re Racine’s Phèdre.”

marmoreally: “…the letters we used to write one another in the 1950’s and 60’s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs.”

The Aspern Papers: “I felt like the possessor of a great prize – the prize that the narrator of The Aspern Papers goes to such extreme lengths to try to get.” (I loved learning about this one. I may have to read it and reconsider Henry James.)

oriental, in this usage: “…I’ve also wasted a great deal of time being positively oriental in tact…” (quoted from a letter written by Olwyn Hughes to Anne Stevenson) I remain puzzled by this one; I could find no definition of oriental that made the least sense in this context. My mother the linguist, when consulted, suggested that maybe it’s a reference to a stereotypical behavior of the population of people sometimes referred to as “Orientals.” (This is not considered polite or politically correct usage.) That sounds like the best theory I can find…

Leonard Bast: “Butscher has figured as a kind of Leonard Bast in the community’s imagination – and, I should add, in his own.” From Forster – naturally.

exiguous: “…but as the house and food were nourishing, the memories were exiguous.”

Cyrano: “Cohen apparently forgave her for her rejection of his actual person and accepted his Cyrano role.” All I can figure is Cyrano de Bergerac, though I don’t entirely get the reference. Anyone care to elucidate?

verdigris, from Plath’s poem, Death & Co.: “The nude / Verdigris of the condor.” (I have looked this up repeatedly but can never keep straight which color is verdigris.)

seraphic: “…her head raised with a kind of seraphic expression…” Like a seraphim, of course.

immanence: “…dust that through the years had acquired almost a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence.”

Whew. Keep the dictionary handy. Anything new to you here?

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.

[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I'm referring to were living then. Plath's mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can't confirm Olwyn Hughes's status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]

Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.

Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.

The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)

Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)

Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)

It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.

Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:

The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.

I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.

Also, this:

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.

I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.
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