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 15, 2013
November 12, 2013
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] “
November 2, 2013
Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman
Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?
A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.
An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”
– Janice Harayda
October 29, 2013
“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.
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.
October 22, 2013
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.
September 28, 2013
“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 Flamethrowers (Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99), by Rachel Kushner.
What it is: A Didion-esque novel about young filmmaker and motorcycle enthusiast who moves in 1975 from Nevada to Lower Manhattan, where she has an affair with an artist from a family of Italian industrialists who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. Kushner’s protagonist finds herself swept up in dangerous currents of radical politics when, while she and her lover are visiting his mother in Bellagio, factory workers go on strike and the Red Brigades step up their campaign of terror against Italy’s elite.
Why I’m reading it: The Flamethrowers has been longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. NBA nominations have been spectacularly unreliable — and, at times, disastrous — in recent years, but some reviews suggest that this novel deserves the recognition.
How much I’ve read: Nearly all.
Quote from the book: Kushner’s protagonist is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothes: “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.”
Furthermore: Christian Lorentzen, a senior editor of the London Review of Books, wrote in a review of The Flamethrowers for the print edition of Bookforum: “The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street.” He added that Kushner’s “most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk.”
Probability that I will review the book: High, especially if it makes the National Book Awards shortlist.
Jan is an award-winning critic and former book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
September 22, 2013
“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.
September 9, 2013
“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.
September 2, 2013
Edith Wharton said that “the blessed drug of hard work” comforted her when she was living in Paris during World War I and had to give up peacetime joys such as seeing friends who couldn’t travel because of the fighting. She launched one project after rich women began making shirts for the wounded, which deprived French seamstresses of their income. Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge writes in The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton (Clarion, 2010):
“The French Red Cross had a request. Could Mrs. Wharton raise enough funds to open a workroom and pay unemployed women to make bandages, socks, and sweaters? …
“Yes, Mrs. Wharton, the writer and high-society woman, could open a workroom. She rolled up her silk sleeves. Within weeks she had talked her wealthy friends out of $2,000 (the equivalent of more than $40,000 today) and established a place where 20 seamstresses could earn a French franc a day and eat a hearty meal at noon.”