Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uncomfortable and Unproductive vs. Ambiguously Imperfect but Utterly Charming: Reviews on You Don't Have to Live Like This (Markovitz) and Crooked Heart (Evans)

I'm plowing through them lately.  Here's one I loved, presented (and read) after one I struggled to complete:
Greg, or Marny to his old college friends is a bit lost.  After graduating from Yale and earning a PhD in literature at Oxford, he fell into a non-tenure track job teaching at a college in England.  A brief meeting at a reunion leads to Greg quitting his job and returning to his parents' home in Louisiana.  He decides to move to Detroit to be part of something akin to a social/economic (somehow that sounds more accurate than 'socioeconomic') experiment.  A college friend is trying to get people to apply for and join a planned community, buying cheap abandoned and often dilapidated homes.  The back cover references a line calling it "the Groupon model for gentrification."  In Detroit, Marny navigates a social life while also confronting issues of race and class that develop as the participants in "New Jamestown" face animosity from some long-time residents who refuse to sell.  

This seemed like an interesting topic, but it never really flew for me.  It seems pretty clear the author doesn't want us to like Marny and the lack of sympathy for his own lead character made it hard to feel invested in his fate.  I'm not sure if he's an "everyman" or simply a loser...or maybe both.  The author provides brief sketches of far too many characters and I was often a little lost because I knew a name was familiar but I hadn't been invested enough to remember which of many characters was in action.  

I can't complete this review without turning to the topic of racism, class-ism, and other -isms.  There are a number of times when Marny's words and/or actions contain outright racism.  I do believe that there's a place for literature that contains more-than-uncomfortable lines but it needs to be done right (see Huck Finn).  Sometimes the best works of art make you uncomfortable.  Here, it doesn't really enhance the context, the plot, or the point (if he has one) which mean every time Marny recorded a racially charged thought (and that's pretty often....he dates a woman seemingly just to be able to say he is dating a black woman from the other side of the tracks) I wanted to throw the book at the wall and give up.
I give this book 2 of 5 stars.  I read it quickly not because I enjoyed it and was propelled along, but because I wanted it to end.  I might have initially gone for 3, but the more I think about the book the less I like it.  This review is based on an advance reader copy of the novel supplied to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Noel has had something of an unusual childhood but then again he's an unusual child.   He has been raised by godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who teaches her own lessons and who is truly the boy's kindred soul.  As WWII settles in, Mattie begins to show signs of dementia and eventually passes on leaving Noel to the care of a much-hated tangential family member.  The family is all too happy to send Noel to the suburbs along with the rest of London's children during the Blitz and the meat of the story comes when Noel finds his way into Vee's care.  Vee lives by her own moral code, bending (okay, breaking) the law to support her mother and her son, Donald.  Vee and Noel clash at first but eventually team up in their own little scheme.  Of course, that can't go well...

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this book.   I loved Mattie and mourned her right alongside Noel, hoping with him that things might somehow take a different turn. The characters of Vee and Noel were beautifully rendered, perfectly imperfect. Noel is not your typical 10-year-old, but he's also very much 10 as is best displayed when he's complaining about perceived injustices (I was reminded of Snow White as a child in Once Upon a Time....moral, but young).  The language is lovely.  

Where this book lost me and where it lost that elusive fifth star was with the story of Vee's lazy lump of a son, Donald.  I disliked him from the start, as we are meant to, but I also disliked having to read about him.  In particular, the story involving Donald near the end of the book just felt wholly out-of-place in a novel that otherwise felt quite genuine.  

Still, highly recommend. I all-but-devoured this one.  It isn't complex and probably fits a mass-market fiction audience (vs a more literary fiction that has a narrower audience), but a good solid read nonetheless with enough moral ambiguity to ring true.  I loved visiting with Noel and, ultimately, Vee as well.  Might have hit 5-stars if it hadn't wasted time on a side-note.  This was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two Pieces of Literary Art About Art..and More: The Small Backs of Children (Yuknavitch; 4.5 stars) & What I Loved (Hustvedt 3.5-4 stars)

It's time for a couple of book reviews, along with a rambly Rambler aside...

First, a "warning" --  This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined.  I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with.  Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially.  I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex (including consensual BDSM-ish sex as well as child rape) violence (sexual and non-sexual) in fiction.

Moving on -- The characters in TSBOC are labeled but not named and the narrator/protagonist shifts from chapter to chapter.  In many ways this is a book about characters and intangibles, but there is an underlying plot that begins with the picture of  young girl running away as her home explodes with her family inside.  The moment occurs in an unnamed country plagued by violence that has been largely ignored in the "first world."  The photograph wins acclaim.  It also has a deep impact on "the writer" who shares much of her history with the book's author herself; both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and both have experienced the anguish of a stillborn child.  As the writer falls into a suicidal depression and is hospitalized at the cusp between life and death, a group of artists gather.  They decide to go get the girl in the photo and bring her to the writer.

There's a lot to say.   This is art, not "just" words.  This is the type of book that you truly experience rather than simply read.  Some chapters felt like a long exhalation and I felt compelled to read quickly, like I was speeding through breath.  I could definitely see plowing through in one seating, in fact that may be the ideal way to experience TSBOC.  There are an incredible number of themes including the nature of art, the construction of meaning, and the struggle to own one's own (female) body.  One interesting element is the fact that the few men who play major roles in the book are largely defined by their relationship to women.  They are called "the playwright", "the artist", and "the filmmaker" but they are really the brother, the ex, and the husband.  A reversal of cultural norms, this is particularly interesting for those who've pondered things like the Bechdel test (and its limitations..and I do link Wikipedia often, it is far from an ideal source but sometimes gives more detail than, say, this basic Bechdel test page) that draw attention to how we define women.

I'm giving this four-and-a-half stars.  I'll even round up to five.  This is NOT for everyone.  It was a quick read but by no means an easy read.  This is the polar opposite of an airplane book (both poles have merit); I'd recommend reading alone when you have energy and emotion to invest.  Elements may be VERY triggering for survivors of abuse.

Note: An advance copy of TSBOC was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  Harper in no way constrains the contents of this review.
This is a story in three parts defined, in large measure, by various forms/stages of love and loss.  It would tell too much to lay out the plot points of each part.  The story is narrated by Leo, an art historian.  Leo discovers a painting by Bill and the two become close friends...actually, those two words fail to encompass the deep connection and affection between the pair.  Leo is married to Erica and there are two women in Bill's life, Lucille and Violet.  These four characters and the families they form are the backbone of the story.

Although a few other key players do emerge, these four are all intensely/intimately connected and all are also, in various forms, artists.  Art is, in fact, probably another main character and there are discussions about real artists and about fictional artistic works "by" the main characters. There's a good deal of discussion about art more broadly including the role of women & women's bodies* in art, the dichotomy of seeing & being seen, and the interplay between how art defines us & how we define art.  Ultimately, however, while art matters deeply, this is a story about relationships and, more specifically, love.  To use more paired descriptions, it is about what love does to us & what we do for it and also about what love cannot do & what love cannot save.  Elsewhere, I titled this review: "Gorgeously Written Story of Loving/Being Loved/Loss, of Seeing/Being Seen, and of Making Art/Being Art/Viewing Art.

Overall -- I very much enjoyed the first two parts.  I truly disliked the third part.  this book is very literary and very concerned with what some might call "academic" matters.  In truth, calling this book pretentious may understate the case; somehow, though, this didn't really turn me off, perhaps because it fit the characters.  Overall, the language is quite beautiful. I'm torn between three-and-a-half and four stars and suppose this time I'm lucky many review sites don't allow for half-stars.  The rating reflects the fact that my enjoyment of the language overall.  Ultimately, it also reflect the fact that my interest in parts one & two overshadow my dislike for part three, especially since I've had a little time to remove myself from the immediacy of the concluding section.

Honestly, I can't tell you how long this one has been sitting on my "to read" shelf...well, I couldn't until I checked Amazon and saw I bought a used copy for a penny ($4 with shipping) on 12/7/11.  I'm glad it finally surfaced.  It calls for a reader who will admit to enjoying the literary and artistic.  This reader is probably comfortable admitting to enjoying the pursuit of learning, a philosopher in the true sense of one who loves wisdom (and talking, or at least reading about it!)....okay, the ideal reader is used to hearing terms like "dork" and "nerd."  It is, as I say above, pretentious and you need to accept that about the book and about the characters.  

*Random Aside (more a personal experience given context by the book than a reaction to the text itself, though the word "reaction" is quite on point)-- The book mentions women who used their bodies as art, "drawing" on their skin by scratching it lightly to make red marks appear.  This caught the narrator off-guard a bit and sent me on a bit of a search.  I remember many a doctor over the years running a dull edge along my skin and noticing that a red mark arose a few moments later.  I can't recall any ever mentioning it though until this year when my dermatologist was looking at an intense allergic reaction.  I didn't catch the word she used but offered to demonstrate on her own since she didn't want to irritate me further and as soon as she mentioned scratching her skin I responded by saying "and a red line appears."

Anyway, apparently the term is dermographism.   Honestly, I don't know if there are degrees of severity, but it is nothing I've ever found really troublesome.  But it surprised me to learn that only 4-5% of people have it.  I knew it wasn't something that happened to everyone, but it was always my normal so I guess I assumed it was pretty common.  It does explain a bit though....whenever something has been itching and I've inevitably given in and scratched. the area becomes very red and angry.  Again, normal to me (and I assume anyone could irritate an already itchy area by scratching, but probably not to this extent) but sometimes concerned onlooker and I never understood why until I dug into it because of the book. 

It is a really interesting condition and there are indeed people who've turned it into art.  There are also a lot of people who go online looking for a cure (there isn't one though antihistamines can help) but it isn't something I feel any need to treat given other maladies.  It has also made me think a lot about how we construct our concept of "normal" and how intensely personal that term truly is.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fighting Back, Part Three: Recovery at Home

This is my third post in a series about my recent back surgery (specifically, a posterior lumbar fusion at L5/S1...a procedure intended to fix instability remaining after a 2011 anterior lumbar fusion).  If you missed them and are curious, here are links to Fighting Back, Part One: Overview of the Surgery and the Pre-Op Period and Fighting Back Part Two: In-Patient Recovery.

The First Days
  • When you leave the hospital, they give you a number of instructions.  Some are pretty standard post-op stuff and some are fusion-specific.  The key fusion-specific rules are referred to as "BLT" bending, lifting, or twisting.  I had built enough strength to be able to squat instead of bend and I'm pretty "handy" with my toes (e.g. I can pick up a dropped piece of a kid, I'd developed the skill of writing with my toes, big letters but legible).  It was definitely little twists that got me in the early days.  It's so natural to swivel a little to grab the shampoo bottle etc.  The rules are largely to prevent unnecessary pain, although it is possible a patient could knock something out of place before things heal and strengthen.
  • I left the hospital with the same meds I had when I went in.  This did mean there was quite a bit of pain at first, especially with getting up or shifting position. 
  • Most docs limit sitting to 15min increments following a lumbar fusion.  Mine doesn't.  He was clear he wanted me up and out of bed as much as possible.  Riding in a car is frowned upon and we had to stop several times during the drive home (it takes 90-120 min normally...the complexity of my issues demanded an out-of-town expert).
  • All docs encourage walking after a fusion surgery.   I did use a walker for the first couple of days at home.  As expected, I tended towards overdoing it.  I'm not going to provide details b/c I know if I read someone else's mileage I'd be tempted to keep up.  Don't be me with this stuff...I have some nasty demons in my head that push me to go further than I should.  
  • I was able to use the same brace I had last time.  For the first two weeks, it was on whenever I was out of bed.    
  • Two incision-related items:
    • One area in which a posterior surgery differs from an anterior approach is, obviously, the location of the incision.  When the incision was on my belly, I could handle my own dressing changes.  Not so much this time.  Honestly, I didn't see what it looked like the first day or two but after that it wasn't as bad as I imagined.  Still, grateful for my husband's helping hand with daily changes.  It was probably about a week to ten days before I stopped covering the wounds.
    • As my red hospital bracelet warned, I've reacted badly to both steri-strips (crazy itching) and medical tape (same plus hive-like skin allergy) in the past.  For the main incision, I had a Tegaderm-style bandage.  I also had a small, latex-free band-aid covering the wound from the drain (looked similar to an entry point for an IV).  Despite the attention to detail, I STILL managed to react getting red and itchy precisely where the bandages were adhered (and scratched since I'm apparently no better at resisting an itch than I was when I had chicken pox in preschool); there was even a "space" in the irritation where the gauze was located so it was definitely the bandages. Given that both are intended to be hypo-allergenic, it's pretty impressive how much my body hated them.  I need to talk to my GP about this one...
Initial Post-Op Appointment and the First Month Post-Op
  • I saw my surgeon again at the two week mark.  He took x-rays and checked the incision.  He said everything was looking good.  He reiterated his firm belief that "It will work" and again remarked on the fact that my skeleton looks like a child's (not a weight issue, as he said one can't eat one's way to bigger bones)
  • Since the 2w appointment, I only use my brace when I leave the house or am walking on the t-mill.  It is there to provide protection in case of a fall or a car accident (or even a sudden stop).  It is a bit embarrassing but I like that it warns people to avoid bumping into me and explains when I'm slow-moving.
  • I'm allowed to drive (per the doc, you can drive when you are confident you could react to a kid running out in front of your car), but prefer to stick close to home.  It is still hard to turn my body (and still best avoided) which makes it hard to change lanes and really hard to back out of a parking spot.
  • By around the two week mark, I was able to tell that the pain I was having was different from my "normal" pain.  This is REALLY good.  It suggests the pain is tied to recovering from the surgery itself and means they may have "gotten" the cause of my pain.  I've had small spells where I'm nearly pain-free.  It's amazing how much one notices (and appreciates!) a lack of pain after years of unrelenting severe pain.  Most days, I do have a decent level of pain and I need to remind myself that it's expected (more're gonna hurt for a few months when someone cuts you open and hammers screws into your spine).  Overall, I'm hopeful.
  • I'm still on the same meds.  Yesterday, I saw the clinical pharmacist who helps my GP manage my meds.  Although I was game to start decreasing (in large measure b/c I'm scared of how long it'll take and how rough it might be), she wants to wait till after my two month follow-up to make changes and (hopefully) begin the process of weaning me off them.
  • I've had setbacks.  I definitely hurt a lot more during bad weather.  I also have days when I simply feel depleted and that causes a pain spike.  I moved oddly one day and had a return of my old pain for a few days which was terrifying.  It has subsided.
It's about six or seven weeks now.  It's still hard.  Overall, I'd say dealing with these back issues is the hardest thing I've ever done (and I took the bar exam!!).  Recovery has been, and will continue to be, a matter of "two step forward, one step back."  There are good days and bad days and I can't always pinpoint a reason for the bad ones. I need to remind myself often that I can't expect much beyond that and that the bad days part of recovering from major surgery and are not a sign of doom.   Hopefully, it continues to add up to moving forward.  Slow and steady.