One-Minute Book Reviews

January 20, 2014

Tash Aw’s Man Booker–Longlisted Novel ‘Five Star Billionaire’ – Shanghai’d

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:54 pm
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Expatriates scramble for a toehold in China’s largest city

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel. By Tash Aw. Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 379 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Maylasian expats are Shanghai’d by Shanghai in this novel that resembles a collection of linked stories. The flat-footed writing never rises much about the level of “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona” and “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” But the story has a carefully knitted plot and something to say: Shanghai is a shape-shifter full of perils for the uninitiated, and everyone is scrambling for a toehold. New arrivals read Western-style how-to books with comical titles like Sophistify Yourself. Better-off residents fortify themselves with cappuccinos and power yoga classes, and real estate developers seek favors from municipal officials who may bend the rules if a bribe includes an offer to pay to send a child to Stanford. In this cynical novel, only the most ruthless — or lucky — achieve what passes for success in China’s largest city.

Best line: “The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch-up.” These lines are overwritten, but the image of clothes stained by sand from Gobi Desert storms is memorable. And the passage sums up a theme of the book.

Worst line: No. 1: “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona – too obvious, too obviously weird; he couldn’t stand it that people who liked Gaudí thought of themselves as ‘offbeat.’” No. 2: Shanghai buildings are not all the same: “Each one insists itself upon you in a different way, leaving its imprint on your imagination.” No. 3: “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” Nos. 4, 5 and 6: “When she laughed, she was aware of a tinkling quality to her voice, like the happy notes of a piano in the lobby of an expensive hotel.” “The late-night bluesy tinkling of the piano made him wish he were somewhere else.” “At last he began to hear the cheap tinkling of notes played on an electric piano.” Note: the “tinkling” of a piano is a cliché and falls especially wide of mark in reference to an electric keyboard, which makes a different sound than the ivory keys of a standard piano do.

Published: February 2013 (Spiegel & Grau/Random House hardcover). Spiegel & Grau erback due out in July 2014.

Furthermore: Five Star Billionaire made the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Philip Hensher reviewed the entire longlist in an article in the Spectator. As Hensher notes, Five Star Billionaire has little that would tax the fans of Arthur Haley, the author of pop fiction bestsellers such as Airport and Hotel. And its Man Booker longlisting seems further evidence of the markup to prize-caliber of middlebrow fiction.

Consider reading instead: Yiyun Li’s wonderful Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the gold standard for recent English-language fiction about China.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

Filed under: Humor,Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:40 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2013

‘Toms River’ – Why Did So Many Children Get Cancer in a Jersey Shore Town?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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A real-life environmental detective story about toxic wastes suspected of causing cancer in children

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Bantam, 538 pp., $28.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was the capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States, and Toms River stood at a crossroads of that dark enterprise. In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions.

Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.

Many of the victims’ parents suspected that the problem lay in the toxic wastes dumped by or emitted from the smokestacks of Ciba and other polluters, and they spent years trying to prove it. Their efforts had impressive results — a government investigation, a cleanup of dump sites, and more rigorous testing of the town water. But the parents received no financial settlement from polluters until their legal team expanded to include Jan Schlichtmann, the brash lawyer whose gladiatorial fight for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass., inspired A Civil Action. In 2001 he helped to negotiate an estimated $35 million payout to the Toms River families, a sum Fagin calls “unquestionably the largest in a residential cancer cluster case, dwarfing the $8 million Woburn settlement of 1986.”

Schlichtmann does not appear until page 349 of the story, and when he does, he has mellowed enough to urge the victims’ relatives to stay out of court. And his late and subdued arrival — and Fagin’s penchant digressing into epidemiological history — make Toms River a slower-paced and less splashy book than A Civil Action. But it is perhaps a more valuable one. Its focus on science and citizen action, not on a go-for-broke lawyer, shows more clearly than Jonathan Harr’s bestseller how difficult it is — even for prosecutors and environmental agencies armed with subpoena power and sophisticated databases — to determine what caused a cancer cluster.

Fagin notes that “Toms River had an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution and a discernible cluster of childhood cancer, and the two seemed to line up, roughly, in what looked like a cause-and-effect relationship.” But the case that the victims’ families hoped to make against polluters was impossible to prove:

“Even with all the pollution and cancer in Toms River, the apparent association could never be confirmed definitively because of the unanswerable questions about long ago exposures and also because of the enigmatic nature of cancer, which struck so unpredictably and had so many possible causes.”

Toms River has cleaner water than it did 30 years ago and no leukemia cluster, but whether other towns could marshall the resources that enabled it to make those gains is doubtful. The main legacy of Toms River, Fagin notes, “has been to solidify government opposition to conducting any more Toms River–style investigations.”

Best line: In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency posted its first official list of the country’s most dangerous toxic waste dumps, known as “Superfund” sites because a “superfund” would pay to clean them up if the government couldn’t force the dumpers to do it: “Sixty-five sites on the original Superfund list were in the undisputed capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States: New Jersey, which had 24 more sites than its closest rival, Michigan. With nine dumps on the list, Ocean County alone had more Superfund sites than 36 states.” Two of the Ocean County sites were in Toms River.

Worst line: Ciba-Geigy blundered when it faced unflattering news stories about all the treated wastewater it was pumping through a pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile offshore from Ortley Beach: “The company responded with all the finesse and humility of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.” That might be true, but the image is tired.

Furthermore: Learn more about Toms River on Dan Fagin’s website. Wonder how close you live to a hazardous waste dump? Click on your state on this Environmental Protection Agency map of Superfund sites.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2013

Coming Soon – A Real-Life Environmental Detective Story

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm
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Suppose that an unusually large number of children in your town developed cancers that seemed to result from an environmental hazard such as air or water pollution. What would it take to prove it? A group of parents in Toms River, NJ, found out when their children were diagnosed with cancers that they believed to have been caused by toxic wastes dumped by the town’s largest employer. Dan Fagin describes their fight for justice in Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam, 2013), an environmental detective story that involves midnight dumping, criminal sabotage, and other subterfuge. A review of the book will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. 

November 12, 2013

William Logan’s ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ Award-Winning Poetry Reviews

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:49 pm
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What winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award most deserved the prize? My favorite honorees include William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, a collection of essays and reviews on poetry, and I explain why in a post on the NBCC blog that begins:

“William Logan once heard a poet say that poets in the 1950s were afraid of three things: ‘Randall Jarrell’s reviews, Robert Lowell’s poetry, and the atomic bomb.’ Today’s poets have three different fears: William Logan’s reviews, John Ashbery’s poetry, and not getting tenure. [read more]

October 29, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers’ – Not Your Mother’s Novel of the 1970s

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm
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“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ah, those single women of the 1970s, always tossing their metaphorical tam-o’-shanters into the air like Mary Tyler Moore or getting stabbed to death in their beds like Roseann Quinn, the inspiration for Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Born in 1968, Rachel Kushner isn’t buying it, as well she shouldn’t. In this historical novel rooted in the downtown Manhattan art world, she offers a more complex portrait of a single woman living by her wits during the waning of what is euphemistically called the Disco Decade.

Kushner brings an astringent documentary sensibility to The Flamethrowers, which tells the story of a motorcycle enthusiast and filmmaker in her early 20s who arrives in New York at the end of the Nixon era. Her heroine, known as Reno, has an affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and scion of a family of industrialists back in Italy who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. While she and her lover are visiting his relatives near Lake Como, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

Reno’s first-person narration alternates throughout the novel with third-person accounts of the World War II and other experiences of Sandro’s father, the head of the fictional Valera tire and motor vehicle company, so large “it was practically a public utility.” The flashbacks to an earlier generation may describe scenes that Kushner’s protagonist has imagined or heard about from her lover, and they support a sweeping theme that spans decades and continents: High-speed 20th-century machines (and machine-made art) can serve as either weapons or as armor. As Sandro says, a weapon is “almost a work of art.” And a work of art is a weapon.

Kushner explores other complex themes that, along with her point-of-view shifts, dilute her portrait of Reno, who seems to exist as a foil for others’ ideas more than a character in her own right. After crashing a motorbike on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Reno asks a mechanic to call Sandro in New York to let him know. She reflects, after the man tells her that a woman answered the phone at her lover’s loft: “A woman? I figured there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number. Or maybe someone from Sandro’s gallery had come over, not unusual, to photograph artworks or prepare them for shipment.”

Single women have a genius for rationalizing the behavior of their errant boyfriends, but the obtuseness Reno shows in that passage and a number of others clashes with the intelligence she displays elsewhere in the book. Reno is a font of elegant observations, whether they involve a young woman who arrives at a gallery “in a black sliplike dress, tiny shoulder blades like a bird’s wings” or Sandro’s belief that “Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.” But Reno’s words tell you more about the people in her orbit than about her. For all its virtues, The Flamethrowers resembles a handsome car in which the clutch never quite gets let out all the way.

Best line: One of many “best”: Reno is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothing: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Worst line: Quoted in the review above. Kushner would have us believe that Reno thinks, on learning that a woman has answered her lover’s phone: “I figured that there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number.” That’s a rationalization worthy of the title character of Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels. If you believe it, I would like to sell you a bridge over the Arno.

A reader’s guide to The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Furthermore: Published in April 2013, The Flamethrowers is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. Kushner’s earlier Telex From Cuba was shortlisted for the prize.

Jan is an award-winning critic who, as book editor of the Plain Dealer, was  a judge for the National Book Critics Circle awards. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Flamethrowers,’ Rachel Kushner’s 2013 National Book Award Finalist

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:49 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Can a weapon be a work of art? Can a work of art be a weapon? Rachel Kusher explores these and other themes in a novel about a young motorcycle enthusiast who moves from Nevada to New York at the end of the Nixon era. Known by her nickname of Reno, Kushner’s heroine has an affair with Sandro Valera, a Manhattan artist and heir to the fortune that his industrialist family in Italy has made by exploiting the poor. Through Sandro, Reno gains access to a downtown art world of dealers, gallery owners and others that is coming alive in the 1970s. But when she and her lover visit his relatives in the Italian Lake District, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

1. The Flamethrowers begins — unusually for a novel — not with its heroine but with a brief chapter on T.P. Valera, the father of her lover, Sandro. How well did the opening work? Would you have stayed with the novel if you had not known that it was finalist for a National Book Award?

2. How does Reno change over the course of The Flamethrowers? (Some critics have called the book a coming-of-age novel, a genre in which a character typically gains hard-won wisdom. What has Reno gained by the end of the novel? What has she lost?)

3. If Reno changes quite a bit by the end of the book, Sandro seems hardly to have changed at all. Why do you think this is so? (Or do you think Sandro does change?)

4. The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that The Flamethrowers “is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art).” (Bookforum, April/May 2013, print edition only.) What do you think the novel is “about”?

5.  James Wood of The New Yorker said that The Flamethrowers is “nominally a historical novel” (because its author, born in 1968, would have been too young to experience its events). Many historical novels have a musty air or reek of the author’s research. Did The Flamethrowers? If not, what made it fresh?

6. Kusher tells her story from two points of view. One is clearly Reno’s first-person perspective. What is the second? Whose point of view do we find in the third-person sections that Reno doesn’t narrate? (Suggested answers appears in the One-Minute Book Reviews review of the novel.)

7. Sandro sees machines, especially weapons, as “almost a work of art.” [p. 288] But some of the characters in The Flamethrowers seem to reflect the opposite view: They use art as a weapon. How do they do this? Does our culture encourage artists, including musicians and filmmakers, to use art against others?

8. Women in The Flamethrowers often have second-class status, even in radical groups. What is Kushner saying about their role in the 1970s? Does any of it still apply in 2013? Is there any truth, for example, to T.P. Valera’s observation, that women “were trapped in time” and “moved at a different velocity” than men did? [p. 79]

9. Reno quotes Sandro as saying: “Sex is not about exchange values … It’s a gift economy.” [p. 208] What did he mean? How does this comment reflect their relationship and others’?

10. The Flamethrowers has many sharp images and scenes of New York, Milan and other places. Which ones were most memorable?

Vital statistics:

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99. Published: January 2012. Kushner also wrote Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist.

A review of The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are marketing tools designed to sell books instead of unbiased analyses. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 22, 2013

Ex-Bronco Nate Jackson’s Football Memoir ‘Slow Getting Up’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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An iconoclast recalls the physical and mental bruises he sustained in the NFL

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile. By Nate Jackson. Harper, 243 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Nate Jackson recalls his injury-prone years in the NFL in a book that proves that a professional football player can use “contextualize” and “neophytic” in a sentence. He has not written his league’s answer to Andre Agassi’s Open, perhaps the best sports memoir of the past decade.

But unlike better-known players such as Brett Favre, Jackson has a sense of humor — by turns droll, self-mocking and sarcastic — that doesn’t spare his teams, the 49ers and the Broncos. He refers to every stadium as [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field and notes that the NFL has required its drug-testers to watch players urinate, not just collect cups,  ever since a member of one of its rosters was caught at an airport with a prosthetic penis called the Whizzinator.

As entertaining as some of this is, you wonder why Jackson felt the need to explain things such as that a lot of masturbation goes on in the hotel rooms of football players traveling without their wives or girlfriends. Did he think no one would have suspected it?

Best line: No. 1:  “So much of offensive football is lying with your body, getting the defender to think you are going somewhere you aren’t. Tell a story with your movements: a bloody lie!” No. 2:  Jackson says he lost some of his idealism when the Broncos replaced quarterback Jake Plummer, whose success had made him believe “there was room for an iconoclast in the cloistered institution of big football,” with the rookie Jay Cutler: “But the good/bad thing about football is that it moves too quickly for your conscientious objections to keep pace. It pulls you along by sheer force.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But I’m not a pregame self-gratifier.” (Accompanied by a report on players who are.) No. 2: “If the wedge comes free to me and the R2, and all the other guys get blocked, then the R2 and I must eat up the wedge and spill the returner outside into the arms of the R1.”

About the author: Nate Jackson spent more than six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a tight end. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003–2008. Ann Killon interviewed him about Slow Getting Up for a San Francisco Chronicle article in which he discusses his brief use of Human Growth Hormone at the end of his career.

Published: September 2013

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic and journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow @janiceharayda on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 22, 2013

Sherri Fink’s ‘Five Days at Memorial’ – Fatal Choices at a Hospital Hit by Katrina

Filed under: Current Events,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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“What is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing?”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. By Sherri Fink. Crown, 558 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

If you’d like to read a horror story, you could pick up Stephen King’s just-published sequel to The Shining. Or you could brace yourself for this nonfiction account of the disasters that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina trapped more than 200 patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

The scale of the calamities took on an alarming legal dimension when, a year after the 2005 storm, the Louisiana attorney general ordered the arrests of a doctor and two nurses suspected of having given fatal overdoses of morphine and a sedative to critically ill patients stranded at Memorial by floodwaters. The case was complicated by an ad hoc evacuation plan that the hospital staff had developed as the crisis intensified: The healthiest patients, doctors decided, would leave first when rescuers arrived. Two groups would go last: the sickest patients and those who had filled out Do Not Resuscitate orders — even if, as was true of 81-year-old Vera LeBlanc, a patient had filled out the form more than a decade earlier. The evacuation plan specified that patients who could walk would be among the first to board the Coast Guard helicopters and privately hired airboats that were arriving intermittently. And it meant that in the five days before the last person left Memorial, doctors and nurses had to make life-or-death decisions they might have avoided if they had received a timely rescue or if the hospital had followed the widely accepted medical protocol of giving the highest priority to the sickest patients and those whose lives depended on machines.

Faced with these realities, a grand jury declined to indict the arrested doctor and the New Orleans district attorney decided not to prosecute the nurses. But the situation raised lingering ethical issues that the physician-turned-journalist Sherri Fink explored in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for the New York Times and the nonprofit website ProPublica. As Fink summarized them in the Times: “Which patients should get a share of limited resources, and who decides? What does it mean to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and does that end justify all means? Where is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing? How, if at all, should doctors and nurses be held accountable for their actions in the most desperate of circumstances, especially when their government fails them?”

Fink explores those questions further in a book that is as important as it is repetitive and disorganized. Laura Miller has noted on Salon that parts of Five Days at Memorial read like a “notebook dump.” If that is perhaps too harsh, it suggests the lack of a cohesive point of view that might have unified a book for which the author says she drew on more than 500 interviews. Fink tells her story from multiple perspectives — among them, those of doctors, nurses, and relatives of patients who died while waiting to be evacuated. As she moves from the hospital that provides the setting the first half of the book to the legal proceedings that inform the second, she repeats facts and shifts gears imperfectly. Fink says five times that a patient named Emmett Everett weighed 380 pounds. And a long dramatis personae does not always prevent confusion about who is speaking or why someone appears in the book.

Amid the welter of viewpoints, Fink withholds her own except in an epilogue that deals with what doctors in New Orleans and elsewhere have learned — or not learned — about disaster relief.  Does she believe staff members at the Memorial committed murder or euthanasia? She offers only clues. In one of them, she gives the last line of her story to a grand juror who says she was convinced — and believed her fellow jurors were, too – that “a crime had occurred” at Memorial.

That is a remarkably tepid conclusion for a book about 45 deaths, more than a few of them suspicious. Unlike physician-authors such as Atul Gawande and Perri Klass, who merge elegantly their literary and medical identities, Fink seems to be groping for a voice. In the absence of one, she relies on the honorable journalistic tradition of looking for sources who express her views. But that approach works best when reporters structure their books in a way that leads to the clear and inevitable — if implicit – conclusion that is missing from this one. Few people can be better-informed than Fink on some of the urgent questions raised by Five Days at Memorial. As valuable as her book is, it might have been all the more so had she risked offering a few of the answers that she is uniquely qualified to give.

Best line: Fink notes that Charity Hospital in New Orleans had nearly twice as many patients as Memorial and faced similar challenges, including lost power and a lack of working plumbing, elevators, telephones and computers. But fewer than 10 people died at Charity while 45 did at Memorial. Charity did better, in part, because the staff continued to provide services like physical therapy and encouraged workers to maintain shifts and a regular sleep schedule: “This signaled that the situation was under some degree of control and kept panic to a minimum. There was an active effort to stem rumors. ‘You can only say it if you’ve seen it,’ staff were told.
“Perhaps most important, Charity’s leaders avoided categorizing a group of patients as too ill to rescue. The sickest were taken out first instead of last.”

Worst line: “Like many of the hospital staff around him, his professional association with what was now Memorial Medical Center” stretched back decades.

Published: September 2013

Read Fink’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article on how doctors at Memorial cared for patients during and after Katrina.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of The Plain Dealer. You can follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 9, 2013

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – Cancer-Stricken Teenagers in Love

Filed under: Fiction,Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:00 pm
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“I’m gonna die a virgin” and other worries of gravely ill 12-to-18-year-olds

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s “hot” even if, as she says, he “HAD FREAKING CANCER.”

Will Hazel and Gus get together before the Big C kills one or both of them? Sentimentalists need not fear. A cheery message of this breezy cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy –- and one that will no doubt comfort millions of teenagers — is: You’re never too sick to get into someone’s pants.

Hazel and Gus meet in a support group for cancer-stricken 12-to-18-year-olds in the basement of an Episcopal church in Indianapolis. Sparks fly, but in the tradition of old-school romance novels, the teenagers do not lose their virginity until late in the book, when Gus persuades a charity that grants the wishes of sick children to let him take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. Hazel’s mother — who has come along to Holland as a chaperone — stays conveniently out of the way at any moment that might seem to require her services.

But John Green has more on his mind in his fifth young-adult novel than showing that when you have cancer, it’s natural to think, “I’m gonna die a virgin.” The title of The Fault in Our Stars points to its theme, which inverts Cassius’ message to Brutus in Julius Caesar: When tragedy strikes, the fault often lies not in ourselves but “in our stars.” In developing this idea, Green goes beyond absolving teenagers of blame for their cancers and asks: What does it mean to lead a good life? Hazel and Gus wonder as their health worsens: Is the purpose of life to “repay a debt to the universe” for the gift of having been born, as Hazel believes? Or is to “to leave a mark on the world,” as Gus thinks?

Both teenagers have had cancer long enough to have smart answers and wry familiarity with some of the absurdities of the American view of serious illness. Hazel speaks matter-of-factly about what she calls “cancer perks” — “the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses” and more. She understands the paradox of “the Last Good Day” cliché in stories about children with cancer, a convention that describes hours “when for a moment the pain is bearable”: “The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”  And she sees the contradictions in certain aspects of the support groups into which therapists and others push the afflicted. Is it realistic to expect all young cancer survivors to find comfort in praying, as her group does, for members who have died?

Such questions are so worthy that you wish Green had developed them through more believable characters and fewer plot contrivances. Hazel narrates the story in a voice that alternately resembles that of a down-to-earth teenager and an elderly lawyer drafting a will. One moment she’s complaining that “cancer books suck.” The next she’s talking about “my aforementioned third best friend” or an incident “wherein I put my hand on the couch.” Gus, although slightly more credible, uses so many high-flown metaphors that you can’t square his language with his account of himself as an ordinary Hoosier basketball fan who used to be “all about resurrecting the art of the midrange jumper.” The plot veers from reasonably realistic into something close to farce when the teenagers land in Amsterdam and Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a cruel and drunken misanthrope.

Perhaps most baffling from an award-winning novelist are the dropped storylines, including one that involves a heavy religious motif introduced in the first pages by Patrick, the well-intentioned but hapless leader of Hazel and Gus’ support group. At meetings the members sit “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.” They are “literally” in Jesus’ heart, Patrick says. Hazel later invokes that description often. And yet, she and Gus talk about the meaning of life in secular terms: They don’t raise the possibility — even to dismiss it — that a sense of purpose might include God. Jesus, it turns out, was simply wallpaper. Of course, teenagers are growing up in a secular world, but The Fault in Our Stars punts on a paraphrase of the wartime question: Is it true that there are no atheists in the Intensive Care Unit?

This is not to suggest that Green should, in the words of the Protestant hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It is rather to say that his book violates Chekhov’s dramatic principle: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Support groups meet in many places, including hospitals, and Hazel and Gus’ group could have gathered in a spot less freighted with symbolism than “in the middle of the cross” in a church. For all the virtues of his novel, Green is trying to have it both ways — to saturate his book with religious motifs without having to explore their implications for his characters.

Best line: “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral.”

Worst line: Hazel’s “my aforementioned third best friend,” “wherein I put my hand on the couch,” that “eponymous album” and similar phrases.

Second opinion: Another review of The Fault in Our Stars calls it a “mawkish” and “exploitative” example of a genre that some call “sick list,” which deals with the plight of gravely ill childrem.

Reading Group Guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: January 2012

Read an interview with John Green about The Fault in Our Stars on his website.

Learn about the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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