from Orion: “Raptorous” by Brian Doyle

The other day, Pops emailed me:

You MUST read this. It is a work of literary richness in a mere page, informative & inspiring, on a subject you will appreciate. I read it twice – I love his word-use here; would you blog about a single-page essay?

I would, Pops!

He added, “notice who & where he is.” From Orion,

Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine in Oregon. His most recent book is The Plover, from St. Martin’s Press.

And the article in question is here.

I certainly agree with the lovely words. How many times could you happily read “hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal”? (Many times.) Muscles on their muscles! I thought first about my Husband, who loves birds (and has rescued several in and around our backyard). I think Doyle is right that many of us are addled, absorbed, haunted and maniacal about, particularly, birds of prey; but beyond them, as well, I certainly hope.

I also think it’s interesting to consider the etymology of the words “rapture” and “raptor.” I had never given conscious thought to their link, although it’s obvious at a glance, isn’t it? I think of rapture as having a religious connotation; but there’s much more to it than that. Just a few links here. I had not considered the more sinister connection to rape.

Birds and rapture have a place in my own little bird-world, too. Our backyard has been very active with the birds this summer. Because we’re growing delicious fruits back there, we’ve seen more, and more diverse birds than every before. (The bird bath doesn’t hurt either in dry Houston summers.) We have had lots of grapes growing along the back fence: 10301452_10203853874376171_9205261055523974740_n
and lots of figs:
10453468_10204111061085678_3107840873699884198_n
and a mama with her babies in our young oak tree:
10497046_10204088767568354_5612090893893219405_o
(Of course none of these are birds of prey. I’m being generous in my interpretation of Doyle’s writing, which is clearly about birds of prey specifically. But I think we can appreciate them all… and our little bird farm is encircled by hawks…)

All of this was joined a few years ago by a lovely piece by my aunt Janet, the sculptor. Its title is Rapture, and it was displayed in her home in Austin:
rapture austin
before joining us here in Houston:
rapture houston
to become a part of our backyard landscape (full of birds, although none are pictured here):
10306253_10203808143952939_4179928191057459515_n
(There is a little dog hidden in there, Where’s-Waldo-style, if you look closely.)

Brian Doyle’s ‘raptorous’ writing is well appreciated this season. Thanks, Pops.

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.

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.

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

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

book beginnings on Friday: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

five days

I have been intrigued by the idea of this book for some time now. I have some perspective on Katrina, to begin with. Not that my personal life was profoundly effected, but Houston residents saw the consequences come our way. For one thing, in the form of Katrina evacuees, and for another, because when Hurricane Rita was forecast for us just a few months later, the response was quite different than it might have been if our neighbors to the east had not just been so badly beaten. And then I suppose my interest is piqued as well because I work at a hospital now. Finally, I got to see Anna Deavere Smith perform last month (at the Medical Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago), and she did a short piece on the conditions at Charity Hospital in New Orleans that was – naturally – very moving. So here we are, finally.

Five Days at Memorial begins with an Author’s Note in which Fink describes her research methods (lots of interviews & other primary & secondary materials) and notes that she wasn’t at Memorial during the storm, although she visited later. She makes it clear that this is a journalistic work, and that she has been faithful to what she learned in her research – all dialog in quotations comes from interview, etc. – and that she has made an effort to keep her own reactions (“any book reflects the interwoven interpretations and insights of its author”) clearly delineated from the facts. I appreciate this.

I’d like to share two bits for your book beginning today. First of all, “Part I: Deadly Choices” begins with a quotation:

Blindness was spreading, not like a sudden tide flooding everything and carrying all before it, but like an insidious infiltration of a thousand and one turbulent rivulets which, having slowly drenched the earth, suddenly submerge it completely. – José Saramago, Blindness

And then the Prologue:

At last through the broken windows, the pulse of helicopter rotors and airboat propellers set the summer morning air throbbing with the promise of rescue. Floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina had marooned hundreds of people at the hospital, where they had now spent four days.

And that, I think, says enough for today.

Kingsolver on Knitting and The Interconnectedness of Life

Barbara Kingsolver has captured my heart with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior. Only fitting, then, that she should make such a charming, truthful, and lyrical submission as this to Orion magazine: “Where It Begins”. I can’t decide which is more valuable and valued: her lovely message, which I won’t sully by summarizing, or her lovely writing, for example:

…banish all possibilities, the winter and the summer, the bare feet under the table, the shattered day undone and dregs of old regard and bitter unsettled tea leaves and the words forever jostling ahead of each other in line, queuing up to be written. Especially those. Words that drub, drub, drub at the skull’s concave inner wall. Words that are birds in a linear flock, pelting themselves in ruined fury all night long against the windowpane.

I am so very happy to hear that words are still drub, drub, drubbing at her skull’s inner wall, because I want them out here.

Enjoy. (Thanks, Pops.)

from the New Republic: on books

Thanks, again, to Liz for sending this along. The New Republic‘s issue of October 21, 2013 featured a cover focus on books and publishing, with five articles included. They range from a one-page infographic to 3 pages long; no serious time commitment here, although you will have to find them. I accessed these stories through a database (Ebsco, if you’re curious) through my employer; you may have similar access through your local public library, for example. I know that on Houston Public Library’s page you can go to “research databases” and search for the publication you want (New Republic), and then you’ll need to put in your library card number to see the articles. Contact your local librarian if you want to get in and you need some help; she or he will be happy to assist. Or, there’s always the print edition, if you subscribe or know of a decent newsstand!

I found these articles interesting (obviously) and wanted to share just a few thoughts. In the order I read them (I have no idea how this relates to the print magazine):

  • “Books Don’t Want to Be Free: how publishing has escaped the cruel fate of the other culture industries” by Evan Hughes examines the fact that books have avoided the way music and movies have become open to pirating and price drops. Those industries are struggling, Hughes writes, in ways that the book publishing industry isn’t. (And don’t even get started on print magazines and newspapers…) This article is optimistic and thus refreshing. It touches on the recent price-fixing court case between a group of major publishers, and Amazon. It also speaks to pricing differences between e-books and traditional print, which is addressed in the next item:
  • “The Words Business, In Numbers,” an infographic (sort of) identifying trends in revenue (e-books vs. print), reader trends, and foreign readership. In a word, “e-books are growing the pie.”
  • “The Dastardly Defender of Letters” by Laura Bennett is an article about and interview with Andrew Wylie, “who still makes millions off highbrow.” He is an infamous agent for clients including – I shamelessly reproduce those listed in the article – Amis, Nabokov, Bellow, Rushdie, Roth, and more in that vein. He is delightfully curmudgeonly, snobbish about the lowbrow, and defending books as they should be made (says he, and I largely agree). This was the most fun piece to read. His apparent serene calm regarding the future of traditional books was heartening.
  • “I Hope They Read Books in Hell” by Norene Malone, on the other hand, touches on the opposite end of the spectrum. Malone visits with the editor, Ruby-Strauss, and agent, Leavell, of Tucker Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.” Max’s cache, if you didn’t know, is being 1) internet-born and 2) offensive as all get-out. Ruby-Strauss and Leavell work with others in the same vein: Snooki from Jersey Shore, that University of Maryland student who wrote that bitchy email, Shit My Dad Says (whose twittering I like, btw). It was interesting to consider that counterpoint, the lowbrow, which (it is argued) helps finance the highbrow.
  • Finally, “The Rancid Smell of Success” was written by Lionel Shriver, author of a good number of novels, most famously We Need to Talk About Kevin, which became a major motion picture. She laments the changed life of a successful novelist: from the scary, financially insecure obscurity of an undiscovered writer to the publicity-exhausted successful author – who is still financially insecure and has to immediately begin work on the next book, but can’t because of all the promotional demands of the current one. It’s a beautifully written article, and she acknowledges the problem with her complaints about the literary festival she has to attend in Bali; but she justifies her complaints, too. It’s a thoughtful piece.

On the subject of e-books versus print – and the question of the future of the traditional book (“is it dead?!” they ask hysterically) – others have said it better before me, but I’ll briefly file my position. The birth or the rise of the e-book does not signal the death of the book, any more than the birth or the rise of television sounded a death knoll for radio. Radio has changed over the decades, but we still have a recognizable semblance of what it was when the television was born. There’s room for both e- and print books in this world, and both have their uses, their pros and cons, their seasons if you will; and both have their fans. Those of us who prefer print (even if we occasionally read electronically!) will continue to buy and borrow real books. Everybody calm down, is my concise message. And please, read books – any kinda way.

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