Category Archives: writing

The Monday Book: THE COST OF COURAGE by Charles Kaiser

The Monday book comes to us courtesy of Paul Garrett this week. Enjoy!

courage Charles Kaiser’s work, The Cost of Courage (Other Press, 2015) focuses on one Parisian family during the occupation of France from 1941-45. Of the six family members, three fought in the resistance but all paid the price.

At the beginning of the occupation, the parents, Jacques and Helene Bulloche are upper middle-class professionals. Their two sons Andre and Robert work for the French government. Their daughters Christiane and Jacqueline are in school. The three youngest children all join the resistance. Andre pays for his decision by being shot, tortured and eventually put in a concentration camp, which he survives.  The two sisters play supporting roles; ferrying messages and contraband weapons around Paris.  As the war draws to a close, their parents and older brother are all arrested and sent to Germany to be tortured (Helene is eventually waterboarded). None of the three survive.

The surviving siblings rarely talked about their experiences. One example to the contrary was when Andre gave his only daughter Agnes chilling advice after she was beaten during a protest march.

“…If you carry a weapon it is always to kill. Do not think it is to defend yourself. If you draw your weapon never get closer than three meters from the person you want to kill, because otherwise he can take your weapon from you.”

Though he had a successful political career after the war, Andre never fully recovered. He always wore a crew cut and black necktie in memory of those who did not survive. He was brutal to his children and filled with rage which he took out on other drivers. Christiane never spoke of her war years until, as an elderly woman, she wrote a 45-page memoir which was part of the genesis of this book. The  work reminds us that often  in war even the winners lose, and the cost of courage is sometimes nearly too much to bear.  This is a great book for anyone interested in the unsung heroes of the war.

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The Monday Book: WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

breathA surgeon used to the negotiation between buying people time and curing them suddenly finds himself in the same position. And sums up the advice he’s been giving, the thoughts he had on this moments, from both sides.

One of the central themes of the book is “when you know you’re going to die, what do you spend your last year or two doing?” In that framework, Kalanithi’s writing moves between poetic and lyrical, and surgically precise.

He struggles with returning to work, and someone says this to him:

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

That one’s lyrical. Then he and his wife (who were having marital problems coping with their dual schedules as medical residents, drifting apart in exhausted frustration) have this exchange, after they decide to go ahead with trying for a baby once they know he’s sick:

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

Surgically precise.

The book was Kalanithi’s dying wish, and that is actually recorded in the book when his wife Lucy takes over, and recorded in the afterword as well. The afterword makes clear that, had there been more time, more editing might have occurred, and that the book as it reads is a singular walk less than a full narrative. Paul was concentrating on Paul, which makes sense.

Even then, there are several magic helpers in the book, although they appear but briefly. Most notable are Lucy and their oncologist (and the subtle between-the-lines understanding of what the couple are dealing with when colleague and friend becomes doctor).

Although this book is about dying, the “both sides of the desk” nature of it, reminiscent of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, is a rare peep into a world none of us are too keen to explore: what happens when death happens to you? When you know the diagnosis but not the timeline, and when you have advised hundreds of people in the same position? What do words mean, actions mean, family mean, when you are the one making the singular journey?

Highly recommended.

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THE MONDAY BOOK: Alas Babylon by Pat Frank

Thanks for the week off, everyone. We really enjoyed spending time with friends in a remote location. And now, back to business as usual. We appreciate Paul Garrett sending a review for this week’s Monday book.

Alas, Babylon

Alas, BabylonYoung Greta Thunberg was catapulted onto the world stage a few weeks ago when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly about the “existential threat” of climate change. Those of us who lived through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties remember another “existential threat,” that seemed at the time to be more ominous and unquestionable.

Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon (Harpers, 1959) was one of the first of many books, like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Fate of the Earth, by Johnathon Schell that attempted to come to grips with the looming threat of nuclear war.

A writer friend mentioned this book to me a few months back when a particularly prickly situation with Iran was playing out in the Persian Gulf, a place with which I became intimately familiar back in 1988. Apparently, the book was required reading in some high schools back in the day, while I was forced to read A Separate Peace and The Red Badge of Courage, two other anti-war novels, which begs the question; were all English Teachers pacifists back then?

Written in the heat of the cold war (pardon the pun) a few years before the Cuban missile crisis, the premise is that an errant missile fired by an American pilot devastates a Soviet base in Iran, launching the world into an atomic conflagration. Virtually all the major American cities are devastated, leaving a small backwater town in North Central Florida relatively unscathed. As the novel unfolds, the residents are forced to deal with the after-effects of the calamity, when they are cut off from what is left of the world.

Frank’s novel was written in an era when people were expected to be relatively well-behaved. Most of the looting in the book takes place off the page and the lone set of thugs who threaten our heroes are dealt with swiftly, despite some collateral damage. This was before things like hurricane Katrina, the Mad Max franchise, and Cormac McCarthy’s desolate novel The Road demonstrated what the end of civilization could really mean.

There are some quaint passages, as when a woman’s abortion is referred to as “a mistake she will never make again.”

Alas, Babylon avoids the preachiness of other anti-nuclear books of the age, perhaps because in the 1950’s, when school children regularly practiced hiding under their desks, home fallout shelters dotted the landscape, and Civil Defense air raid drills were carried out on a monthly basis, nuclear war was a foregone conclusion.

Pat Frank died in 1964, a good twenty-five years before the Soviet Union collapsed after rotting from the inside, and the threat of nuclear war was put on the back burner. One can’t help but wonder what he would have thought.

Nowadays worries over the horror of nuclear war are all but forgotten along with many other bugaboos and jeremiads about things that could really happen and are just around the corner and threaten life as we know it. It seems the end is always near. Nor is chronophobia a recent phenomenon, as pointed out in what is reported to be an old Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.”

While we know that over 250,000 people were incinerated or left to die a slow excruciating death at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is little direct evidence so far that anyone has been killed by climate change.

It seems that whether it is nuclear war, acid rain, the ozone hole, the coming ice age, global warming, creeping socialism, or the threat of a second term for Donald Trump, powerful people are always trying to scare us into doing their bidding.

As it turned out, it wasn’t nuclear annihilation that threatened to bring us to our knees but a sneak attack from an unexpected quarter, or as Toby Keith famously sang; “A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back,” on September 11th, 2001. So, while it may be true as the aphorism says, “Ninety percent of the things you worry about never happen,” we might add, “…but beware of those things you never see coming.”

 

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: THE LEISURE SEEKER by Michael Zadoorian

leisureTwo senior citizens hit the road for a last hurrah. She has cancer. He has Alzheimer’s. They’ve been married almost sixty years. They’re sharing a Leisure Seeker Van, and a lot of memories.

She packed the slide carousels featuring their lives, and a gun. He didn’t pack enough clean underwear, because he doesn’t care about hygiene much anymore. In fact, he’s having a hard time remembering her name, although he always calls her the love of his life.

This book made me laugh and cry. There is little dignity in American aging, but then again, dignity is where you find it. Like when a flat tire strands our two seniors alongside a deserted road, and the two men who approach them with a tire iron aren’t there to help. That’s when Ella gets her purse out of the camper and her gun out of the purse, and threatens to blow the boys away if they don’t leave them alone.

That kind of dignity.

Also, there’s the dark humor that Ella can’t drive their 1978 camper, so her dementia-driven husband does. When she forgets to take the keys, he drives away.

Zadoorian writes snappy dialogue and sarcastic sentences with style. They’re short, they’re smart, they’re fun. Sometimes you go from sob to laugh halfway through one.

And there’s the lovely symbolism running through the book of Route 66 versus the highway, and how they choose convenience or high life, or adventure over convenience, as we have all been doing all of our lives.

The ending is inevitable. Trigger warnings may apply. If you live life on your terms, that includes how you decide to go out. Disneyland may be a good destination, but it’s not the final one.

Highly recommended – these characters aren’t just driving the plot; the plot is driving. I loved this book. (Do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the film. Trust me on this.)

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The Monday Book: The Story of the Tweed

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Story Of the Tweed by Herbert Maxwell

I’m not usually all that keen on travel books, but this one intrigued me as it’s about a part of Scotland with which I’m familiar. In fact I was there in June this year with my tour group, as I have been every other year for the last fourteen.

This is a facsimile reprint of a book first published in 1909, but it holds up well and could easily have been written more recently.

Maxwell traces the journey of the river Tweed from its source near Moffat to the North Sea at Berwick. But he takes a good few side turnings to explore the countryside, adjacent towns and other smaller rivers that feed into the Tweed.

river_tweed

The Tweed with the Eildon Hills in the background

Of course this is ‘ballad country’, and Maxwell was clearly well acquainted with many of them – many are quoted, including ‘The Dowie Dens o Yarrow’, ‘True Thomas’, ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ and more. Walter Scott’s famous ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ is the definitive collection and it would seem Maxwell had his own copy!

The writing is excellent, descriptive and humorous. Much of Scotland’s history was played out in this ‘debatable land’ covering the much disputed border with England. Again the author proves himself well up to the task of dissecting and explaining the history as he leads us along. Like most of my generation my schooling included very little Scottish history so it’s through books like this that I’ve had to re-educate myself.

Maxwell is clearly a big fan of Walter Scott, who lived the last part of his life in his mansion beside the Tweed. It’s clear also that he, like Scott was a big supporter of the union of Scotland and England. However I think the reason was more to do with the ending of cross border raids and the establishment of peace than for the economic reasons Scott espoused.

If you can find a copy then I highly recommend this to anyone with connections to the area or with an interest in Scottish history and balladry. Fans of Outlander will also recognize some familiar themes!

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The Monday Book: THEIR HOUSES by Meredith Sue Willis

their housesI got sent this book as I was leaving the Book Editor position for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. It was a wild ride (the book, although so was being editor).

Wells sets up a bizarre but plausible set of circumstances, and rides the wild waves from there: an old guy who struck it rich as a conspiracy theory revolutionary wants to reconnect to sisters he knew in childhood. All of them had weird childhoods, in the Jeanette Walls sense. The girls used to build little matchbox houses for their toys and called them “safe houses,” and kept them in a trunk–the same trunk where the younger sister hid drug money she stole from her older sister when she started running them….

That’s partly how the old rich guy got rich, and partly why he has a panic room. And partly why he loves the sisters, particularly the older one, so much. She turns in later years to religion and marries a preacher with a shady past that reaches into the present every now and again, with no complaints from him. (Every character in this novel is complicated, but not deep, is the best way to put it?)

Each chapter in the novel features one of the six main characters, and you will find this featured in the book group questions at its end: how do these different perspectives give the reader any sense of what’s going on inside all this chaos?

Good question. This book is chock full of things that don’t make sense, except, well, contextually they do. If you like Vonnegut, you’ll like Wells. Anything goes. Including the rather satisfying ending.

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Monday Book – The Rituals of Dinner – Margaret Visser

Jack gets to review the Monday book this week –

dinner

This book is both fascinating and frustrating.

Visser chose a strange way to progress her story, not chronologically as might be expected, but by topics. This results in a good deal of repetition – revisiting the Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans etc in every chapter. Other reviewers have suggested the book could have been a good deal shorter and more readable and I’m inclined to agree.

On the other hand I found it hard to put down because of all the really interesting stuff scattered throughout. Although her specialty is literature, she is clearly a fine anthropologist as well. There are a good few references to folk motifs that I’m familiar with and was a bit surprised to find in a book about table manners. In fact, although the title suggests a fairly narrow focus, Visser ranges pretty widely around the central subject.

You could be forgiven for expecting this book to be about table manners and how to behave at the dinner table. It actually starts with cannibalism, goes through the development of tables and chairs, covers the invention of forks and spoons, deals with social attitudes in different cultures and a host of other loosely food related matters.

I think what was perhaps a bit startling for me was recognizing familiar dinner table and restaurant situations and for the first time understanding what lay behind them – everything from the placing of a knife (blade towards you and not your neighbor) to signaling the time to change courses.

The final chapter examines present day mores including the fast food culture – reflecting another book – ‘The MacDonaldization of Society’ by George Ritzer, but that’s another story – –

I have some reservations about Visser’s book, but if you don’t mind skimming here and there, it’s still fascinating stuff!

 

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