Saturday, May 23, 2009

Push by Sapphire

"Claireece Precious Jones endures unimaginable hardships in her young life. Abused by her mother, raped by her father, she grows up poor, angry, illiterate, fat, unloved and generally unnoticed. So what better way to learn about her than through her own, halting dialect. That is the device deployed in the first novel by poet and singer Sapphire. "Sometimes I wish I was not alive," Precious says. "But I don't know how to die. Ain' no plug to pull out. 'N no matter how bad I feel my heart don't stop beating and my eyes open in the morning." An intense story of adversity and the mechanisms to cope with it." From Amazon

Sapphire (aka Ramona Lofton) has had life and teaching experiences that give her insight into some of the topics covered in Push. The abridged audio version of the book is read by Sapphire and is extraordinary. One of the few abridged audio books that "works." The Alternative School teacher, Ms. Rain, is based on Sapphire's work with kids in similar NYC schools. I am just finishing listening to the audio version. The reading is powerfully moving, the subject is important. It's a topic we prefer not to know about; but it is reality for many people and Sapphire puts it under an eloquent unforgiving lens. Read or listen to this book!

The film Precious which will be released soon is a dramatization of the book.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Season in Hell by Marilyn French

This is the harrowing story of Ms. French's odyssey in the country of the sick. It begins with esophageal cancer and progresses to the sequelae of radiation and chemotherapy which affected her heart, gastrointestinal tract, bones, lungs, kidneys, bladder and more. She defied the odds and lived 19 years cancer free. This is a gutsy gripping story.

Ms. French, a respected feminist intellectual and writer, died in May of 2009. In A Season in Hell, she is candid about her physicians and care givers. There is much in this book to instruct aspiring doctors, nurses, therapists and care givers.

Her obituary which appeared in the NY Times is worth reading, too. Click here.

Quote: "Enervation had turned me into a docile patient, helpless, caught, trapped in a system. I felt that the doctors were caught in it, too. The department, the hospital, the huge system, encompassed us all, and nothing could be done about it. They were killing me and I was letting them. There was no way to stop it." (p. 110)

This is a tough, extraordinary read. You can purchase a used copy at ABE Books.

Never Let Me Go

Reviewed by Deborah Alecson.

Never Let Me Go, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is about the absolute extreme human beings would go to negate their mortality. This extreme is the established practice of cloning. Ishiguro writes about a world that could be envisioned as science fiction, but he writes from the perspective of one of the cloned, Kathy. While the reader has entered foreign terrain, continued reading brings forth a situation that indeed can be a reality towards which our present culture is headed. Kathy is a “copy” of a person, known as a “possible.” She was created to donate her vital organs. Prior to donating, she is trained as a “carer” for a clone who is in the process of organ donation. (As clones, they are not spared the suffering of surgeries, recuperations, and physical decline.)

What are the ethical issues this story poses? The ethical perspective of deontology, for example, is strictly against using a person as a means to another person’s happiness. Kathy and the other characters portrayed, come across as human by virtue of having feelings and attachments to one another. This brings to mind the humanity of The Tin Man, The Scarecrow, and The Lion in The Wizard of Oz. It is clearly morally unjust and repugnant to use Kathy and the others as means to the ends of their “possibles.” However, they are not human, born of the flesh. They are created by technology. They have a defined purpose that is not one they have chosen, for they do not possess free will. As nonhumans then, is it morally just and even a good that they exist to donate their organs?

There is, however, the overarching question of why people would even bother with clones. Isn’t the lifespan that we currently have long enough? Why the need to extend it? Is the goal to avoid the misery that accompanies disease? And, are these clones something that only the rich can afford? Do we want a clone for every Tom, Dick, and Harry or should we be particular and clone the Dalai Lamas of the world? Or, the Donald Trumps of the world? I am sure the Dalai Lama would be the last person on earth who would seek a clone. It is antithetical to Buddhism, as well as to the spiritual revelations of all religions. Donald Trump, on the other hand….

The possibility of cloning is consistent with a narcissistic culture such as ours. We want to avoid illness and its harsh lessons and keep death at bay. Ishiguro offers us this technological potential from the perspective of the clones, for it might be the only way that we can fully grasp the fuller implications.

Comment: I found this book haunting, dark and memorable. It is worth reading. Deborah raises the issues it addresses cogently and compellingly in her precis. DJE

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Honor Thy Children:

One Family's Journey to Wholeness
by Molly Fumia

"This heartbreaking story of a Japanese American couple who experienced the tragic deaths of all three of their children-two from AIDS, one a murder victim-records the family's trajectory from homophobia and denial to emotional healing. Alexander Nakatani, a San Jose, Calif., social worker, and his wife, Jane, an elementary school teacher, grew up in Hawaii in a culture that prized reticence, hard work, denial of self. They virtually disowned their firstborn son, Glen, upon learning he was gay. Troubled, sullen, secretive, raised by parents who feared he was not "normal," Glen left home in 1977 at age 15, living on college loans and forged checks; he died of AIDS in 1990. Greg, the middle son, a macho, heterosexual engineering student, was shot to death in 1986 in a dispute with an illegal Mexican immigrant over a car. The Nakatanis were initially horrified to discover that Guy, their youngest son, was gay, but anger and shame were gradually supplanted by unconditional love. Diagnosed HIV-positive, Guy became a health educator, lecturing at schools and businesses on the dangers of HIV and of homophobic ignorance-with his father at his side as a fellow speaker. Wheelchair-bound and partly blind from AIDS complications, Guy, 26, died in 1994. Skillfully using letters, interviews, conversations and oral testimony, Fumia, author of previous books on grieving, gives her moving study of family dynamics complexity." Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

This is a moving and memorable book that can be purchased from ABE Books for ~ $1.00 plus shipping.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Journey Through Darkness:

My Life With Chronic Depression - (Sunday Magazine, May 10, 2009)
by Daphne Merkin
"Depression, truth be told, is both boring and threatening as a subject of conversation. In the end there is no one to intervene on your behalf when you disappear again into what feels like a psychological dungeon — a place that has a familiar musky smell, a familiar lack of light and excess of enclosure — except the people you’ve paid large sums of money to talk to over the years. I have sat in shrinks’ offices going on four decades now and talked about my wish to die the way other people might talk about their wish to find a lover."

This is a fine narrative of the author's travail in Depression's Dark Wood. It highlights the disconnects between patients and the professionals and sheds some light on the vagaries of recovery. William Osler commenting on Robert Burton's tome "The Anatomy of Melancholy" wrote that if the work had just been a medical text it would have “since sunk in the ooze” like so many other 17th century medical works but it lives on because of the human sympathy of his approach. So too with this fine essay. Along with Burton's opus, Ms. Merkin's article has the power to illuminate the darkness and educate patients, families and professionals.

Full article: A Journey Through Darkness.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I'm Looking Through You (2008)

Growing Up Haunted. A Memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan

From Publisher's Weekly: "Starred Review. Boylan, an English professor, novelist and memoirist (She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders), tells of growing up in a haunted house in Pennsylvania, where phantom footfalls and spectral mists were practically commonplace. This was a fitting-enough setting for young Boylan, then a boy who longed to become a girl. Back then I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, she writes. [I]n order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden. In 2006, years after her sex change, Boylan returned to her childhood home with a band of local ghostbusters as she struggled to reconcile with her past as James Boylan, as well as her memories of family members she'd loved and lost there. This memoir is better suited for those interested in broader human truths than in fact (a disclaimer in the author's note explains that she's taken liberties in service of the story); readers in the former category are in for a treat. Boylan writes with a measured comedic timing and a light touch, affecting a pitch-perfect balance between sorrow, skepticism and humor. In spite of the singularity of Boylan's circumstance, the coming-of-age story has far-reaching resonance: estrangement in one's own home, alienation in one's own skin and the curious ways that men and women come to know themselves and one another."

Jennifer Boylan's Web Site

Jennifer Boylan "No Dumb Questions."

See NY Times Op-Ed "Is My Marriage Gay" by J.F. Boylan

Monday, May 11, 2009

Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung : a Memoir

By Martha Mason
Published by Down Home Press, 2003
ISBN 1878086952, 9781878086952
300 pages

"I live with a stable of nightmares, " Martha Mason writes, "but hope keeps them in harness." Some might wonder how Martha could have clung to hope at all. In 1948, on the day of the funeral of her adored older brother Gaston, a quick victim of the great polio epidemic, Martha was struck with the same dreaded disease. After a year in hospitals, she was sent back to her home in the village of Lattimore in the cotton-growing hills of western North Carolina. She was completely paralyzed, with only her head protruding from an 800-pound yellow metal cylinder that breathed for her. Doctors told her parents that she likely wouldn't live for more than a year. But the doctors hadn't counted on Martha's will, or the hope that drives her still. An avid reader, she dreamed of being a writer, and after finishing high school in her iron lung, she went on to nearby Gardner-Webb College, then to Wake Forest University, where she was graduated first in her class. After college, Martha attempted to begin a career as a writer, dictating to her mother, who had devoted her own life to Martha's care. But her father suffered a massive heart attack, leaving him, too, an invalid. Her mother, caring for both, had little time for Martha's dictation. Technology revived Martha's dream. A voice-activated computer allowed her to write without assistance. She got it early in 1994 in a time of great despair. A devastating stroke had altered her mother's personality, causing her to turn on Martha, and eventually to revert to childhood. Martha had to become her mother's keeper, and to run a household from her iron lung. To help her deal with the crisis, Martha began writing about her mother's selfless love. As she wrote,she found herself telling her own story, without self-pity or sentimentality, and with her usual courage, grace, and humor. Breath will make readers laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. It is a breath-taking memoir.

Martha Mason died in her home in Lattimore, NC on May 4, 2009. NY Times Obituary.

We have been trying to obtain a copy of Breath to review but have not been successful yet. It is in the collections of many NC public libraries.