MacDonald, Betty. The Plague and I. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1948.
Reason read: April is Humor Month.
I don’t know how someone can find humor in having tuberculosis, but then again, I’m not Betty MacDonald. She can find the funny in just about everything. This serious illness has come late to Betty. She is almost thirty, already married and divorced and a mother to two small children. Everything about tuberculosis is a mystery to her. The Pine’s list of treatments includes a long list of rules for new patients: no reading, no writing, no talking, no singing, no laughing, no plants, no flowers, no outside medications, no talking to other patients’ visitors, no personal clothes, and most damning of all, no hot water bottles. The goal is rest, rest, rest. When Betty first arrives at the sanitarium she doesn’t know if being cold all the time is a sign her disease is worse than others. Then she realizes it is cold all the time…for everyone. There is a great deal made of analyzing one’s sputum – determine color and measuring exactly how much is expelled. Betty wishes she had a more ladylike disease such as a brain tumor or a hot climate disease like jungle rot.
Despite the rules, the constant cold, and the overbearing Charge nurse, Betty makes friends and finds something to laugh at the entire time. How she leaves The Pines was a bit of a surprise to me but I’ll leave that for you to read.
As an aside, even though she doesn’t figure into the plot extensively, Gammy is a hoot.
Quotes I loved, “I was sure that I could be more intelligently cooperative if I knew what I was doing” (p 71).
Most realist quote, “I am neither Christian enough nor charitable enough to like anybody just because he is alive and breathing” (p 89 – 90) and “This simple pleasure was denied me, however, for I had been advised by the authorities that wandering in the grounds before breakfast meant just one thing – S.E.X.” (p 237).
Quote that distressed me, “He laughed, punched me in the stomach and ordered a sedative (p 111). What?
Playlist: “Hills of Home,” “Sonny Boy,” “My Buddy,” “Boy of Mine,” “Wind Through the Olive Tree,” “Tea for Two,” “Night and Day,” “Body and Soul,” “Judy,”
Christmas setlist: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” ” Silent Night,” “Adeste Fideles,” “We three Kings of Orient Are,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” “O Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger.”
Author fact: MacDonald also wrote Onions in the Stew and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Both are on my Challenge list.
Book trivia: The Plague and I follows The Egg and I but can be read separately. Onions in the Stew is the third book in the memoir vein.
Nancy said: Pearl included The Plague and I in her list of books she considers so funny they will having you falling off your chair, but didn’t say anything specific about the book.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Tickle Your Funny Bone” (p 217).
Nunez, Elizabeth. Anne In-Between. New York: Akashic Books, 2009.
Reason read: Anna In-Between reflects on childhood. Every time my birthday nears, so do I. Read for myself.
Thirty-nine year old Anna returns to her parents’ home in the Caribbean islands. Anna has been in New York City as an in-demand editor for almost eighteen years, returning to her Caribbean home periodically for short visits. She returns, not because of a longing for her country, but only to check in on her aging parents. They appreciate the visits but feel Anna has lost touch with her roots. It is as if Anna cannot wait to bolt from her childhood memories, the color of her mixed-race skin, and her emotional parents.
On this particular trip, Anna discovers her mother has advanced stage breast cancer and is appalled her parents have been aware of the growing tumors all along. It is inconceivable they chose not to do anything about the disease growing in Beatrice’s breast. With Anna’s insistence of medical care ever increasing, Anna’s parents finally visit a doctor to begin treating the disease with chemotherapy. Anna’s mother, however, draws the line at traveling to the United States for necessary-for-survival surgery, strongly believing her dark skin will warrant sub par treatment.
Mother and daughter are locked in a cultural battle; mother accusing daughter of becoming too Americanized as if it were akin to catching a different debilitating disease. [As an aside, their fight reminded me of my own battles. My mother is convinced I no longer have the capacity to take care of my childhood home; as if the ways of Monhegan are too foreign to me as now I live with running water, working lights, and an automatic thermostat.] Anna In-Between is the dance of expectation. Mothers want so much for their daughters that reality seems like a constant disappointment, an “you can never do anything right” attitude. Been there! Beatrice is not entirely to blame in all this. Anna has her assumptions, too. She has so much pent up resentment towards her mother she thinks Beatrice blames her for a failed marriage, is disappointed in Anna’s less than impressive career, and is embarrassed by Anna’s less than impeccable appearance. It is hard for Anna to empathize; to see Beatrice as human when she feels like such a failure herself. I won’t spoil the plot, but I can say Nunez’s gift is a satisfactory non-ending with a healthy dose of hope. For Anna and Beatrice.
Interestingly enough, Nunez refers to the locale of Anna In-Between as “the island” as if she doesn’t want to put a pin the map of where the story actually takes place.
Author fact: Nunez was born in Trinidad.
Book trivia: Anna In-Between was reviewed by Edwidge Danticat. I just finished reading The Farming of Bones by Danticat last month.
Nancy said: Pearl said she has enjoyed the novels of Nunez and made mention of Anna In-Between (Book Lust To Go p 58).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Cavorting Through the Caribbean – Trinidad and Tobago” (p 58).
I am consistently running (yay). My head is finally screwed on straight – somewhat (yay). Things are not perfect but I can say February is mostly fixed.
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber – in honor of Charles Dickens and his birthday being in February. Weird, I know.
- Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez – in honor of my childhood.
- Little Havana Blues: A Cuban-American Literature Anthology edited by Virgil Suarez and Delia Poey – in honor of Cuba’s reformed constitution.
- The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley – in honor of February being friendship month.
- Rome and a Villa by Eleanor Clark – in honor of Clark’s birthday.
- All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. – in honor of February being Civil Rights month.
- Barrow’s Boys: A stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy by Fergus Fleming – in honor of Exploration month.
- Making Tracks by Matt Weber – a Christmas gift from my sister.
Dunnewold, Mary. Fine, Thanks: Stories from the Cancerland Jungle. Texas: Black Rose Writing, 2019.
Release date: 10/24/19.
Reason read: this was a November pick for the Early Review Program from LibraryThing. I haven’t posted one of these in awhile (didn’t get chosen for October, forgot to make a selection for December, and November – this one -only came just recently).
My very first surprise takeaway from reading Fine, Thanks is how calm and pragmatic Mary is while describing her relationship with breast cancer. How is this possible when she went went a healthy mammogram to a “cancer everywhere” magnetic resonance image less than a year later? From discovery, treatment, and recovery there is a smattering of humor, a touch of sarcasm, more than a healthy strain of emotional bravery, and yes, to be expected, anger. For the most part, she is detailed and detached in such a way that a reader can relate in the abstract if he or she has never experienced breast cancer, or nod knowingly if it has been a nightmare reality. I have to wonder how many people diagnosed with any stage of breast cancer have whispered a sage yesyesyes at every truthful, clear-headed, powerful sentence Dunnewold wrote? Even when she points out the obvious I found myself making note of my emphatic agreement. For example, it is common sense that people would pay more attention to something when it relates to them directly. The greater the relationship the more one is willing and apt to sit up and take notice. But when Dunnewold points that out it becomes something different. Yes. She writes like a storytelling river; at times a crashing torrent of yelling words and roiling feelings. At other times her words are a gentle trickle of quiet and graceful acceptance.
Confessional: My favorite moment was not the height of her bravery during diagnosis or even treatment, but rather when she ended her search for religion. Odd as that may seem, it’s true. Her viewpoint awoke something deep within me. Not in the jolting sense of an abrupt aha moment. there was no visible lightning strike. But rather in the slow dawning of discovery; the way that a patch of sunlight plods across the carpet illuminating a slight discoloration in the pile never noticed before. A subtle stain. Oh. Ohhhh…now I see. There were a few of those moments.
Second favorite part – the laugh out loud moment or as I call it, the “snort coffee out the nose” moment was when Dunnewold described the “unanticipated side effect of cancer” in conjunction with pie crust. She owes me a cup of coffee.
As an aside, what is it about animals? I was f.i.n.e. with the ending of Fine, Thanks. I could close the book with a sigh of satisfaction…until I got to the epilogue. Having just helped my sister adopt a dog named Rubie…ugh.
So, by the end of November I was a blathering mess, wasn’t I? I know I was. Mea culpa. Three xrays, five vials of blood taken, one CT scan, and two therapy sessions later, here are the updates. The protruding ribs are being blamed on chiropractic appointments even though I felt the rib cage move before I started see Dr. Jim. The nerve pain is being controlled by medication. The spot on the lung and possibly tumor…no results as of today. White blood cell count still elevated. Possibility of cancer…still a possibility.
But. But! But, enough of all that. Here are the books: I have a week off at the end of the month so I am anticipating it will be a good reading month. Here are the books planned:
- Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess (EB) – in memory of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th.
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin – in memory of Le Guin passing in 2018.
- Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund – to honor Alabama becoming a state in December.
- The Female Eunuch by Germain Greer – to honor women’s suffrage law.
- Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens (EB) – to honor the wedding anniversary of Mark and Delia.
- Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger – in honor of the moon landing.
- Stet: an Editor’s Life by Diana Athill (EB) – in honor of Athill being born in December.
- The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (AB) – to continue the series His Dark Materials, started in November in honor of National Writing Month.
- The Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett (EB) – to continue the series Niccolo House, started in August in honor of Dunnett’s birth month.
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- Squelched by Terry Beard.
If there is time:
- Black Tents of Arabia by Carl Raswan – in honor of Lawrence of Arabia.
- This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun – in honor of Jelloun’s birth month.
Ignatieff, Michael. Scar Tissue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
From the very first page of Scar Tissue you are sucked in. The opening paragraphs are tragic and utterly real. You can easily put yourself in the story.
I am a big fan of clever one-liners and Scar Tissue is full of them, like “we are programmed to betray” (p 4). Truth be known I would have said “We are programmed to deceive” paying homage to one of my favorite songs of my youth, “Hotel California” by the Eagles. But, Ignatieff is right, betrayal is more in keeping with human nature than deception.
I grieved throughout this entire book. Told from the perspective of a middle aged married man with a family of his own, it is story of watching parents grow old and relationships change. The aging process is especially cruel when it is accelerated by Alzheimer’s disease. The mother the narrator loves dies in the mind right before his very eyes and he is powerless to stop it. It is difficult to read about the mother’s slow decent into another reality; a reality where childhood happened only yesterday but the spouse she wakes up next to is a complete stranger. The struggle to understand takes its toll on everyone around the narrator. He becomes fixated on “being there” for his mother, especially after the sudden death of his father. His marriage and teaching position suffer until there is barely anything left.
Probably the most poignant scene in the whole book is the narrator’s visit to an ALS patient and the distinctions made between dying with a sound mind as with the ALS patient and his mother, dying with a damaged mind but a healthy body.
I love it when books I am reading simultaneously overlap. Scar Tissue mentions Italian artist Andrea Mantegna whose biography is in Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Vol 2) by Giorgio Vasari.
Reason read: November is national Alzheimers awareness month.
Author fact: Google Ignatieff’s name and you will see he is all over the internet, but not for his writing. He has had a pretty substantial political career as well.
Book trivia: Scar Tissue was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Mothers and Sons” (p 161).
Witchel, Alex. All Gone: a Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
What a difficult task it must be to not only confront a loved one’s illness but to share it with the world. People attempt to do it all the time but Witchel truly succeeds. Her writing is filled with tragic honesty and humor. In an effort to illustrate just how dementia has changed her mother’s personality and the dynamics of the mother-child relationship Witchel dips into her childhood. Using recipes from her past Witchel uses food to bridge the gap between a healthy mother and the disease that has stolen her. It is difficult to watch a seemingly healthy person disappear before your very eyes and that is what happens to Witchel’s mother. Going from professor to patient was not an easy transition for her.
In addition to the stress of an ailing parent Witchel confronts being the only sibling to step up and deal with the sad situation. Everyone is tied to their own family responsibilities and thinks Witchel is the logical caregiver. The attitude is, what else has she to do?
Many people will be able to relate to Witchel’s predicament. Even more so, fans of her writing for The New York Times will embrace her poignant memoir enthusiastically.
There are a bunch of lines I wish I could quote. I guess I’m going to have to read the finished version to make sure they stayed!
Packard, Georgeann. Fall Asleep Forgetting. New York: Permanent Press, 2010.
I have a love-hate relationship with books like Fall Asleep Forgetting. The problem is Packard’s writing is too good. Like a delicious meal I couldn’t slow down when it came to eating it up; devouring whole chapters at a time. What’s wrong with that? In truth, this is a book meant to be savored slowly. The writing is delectable, deliriously rich and expressive. One minor distraction is character focus is a little out of focus. I would have preferred Claude as the obvious heroine rather than swirled in a mishmash of other incredibly strong personalities. Because Fall Asleep Forgetting really is about Claude and her strange involvement with a married couple, Paul and Sloan, that fact really needs to be teased out. Paul is dying and his wife is bisexual and mentally ill…sort of. Claude is caught up in their relationship until it becomes her relationship, her obsession, but as I mentioned before, she is not the only one. There is nine-year-old Six and her parents Rae and Sonny, Cherry the transvestite owner of the trailer park where most everyone lives and her partner Barton, and elderly Mr. and Mrs. Saugerties. Each one of these characters has a unique and tantalizing story.
Quotes that I really hope are kept: “Once your parents hate you for who you are, the scorn of others in mere child’s play” (p 42), and “I see now that equal parts repulsion and attraction make for the most voracious form of lust” (p 124).
Personal note: I was really excited to see e.e. cummings quoted at the beginning of the chapter called “The Curving Support of Feather Pillows” (p 129). ‘Milly and Maggie and Molly and May’ is a great poem. My only argument would be against calling it a poem about just Maggie because Milly, Molly and May all had important parts.
Shapiro, Karl. “Hospital.” Poems 1940 – 1953. New York: Random House, 1953.
Maybe it’s because I have been watching HBO’s miniseries, “The Pacific.” Whatever the reason I have become more in tune with World War II literature. Both fiction and nonfiction. Written about vets. Written by vets. When I first picked up Karl Shapiro’s Poems 1940 – 1953 I had a feeling these poems would center around war, specifically World War II and the Pacific Theater. I wasn’t that far off. For the Book Lust Challenge I had to read “Hospital.” Scanning the table of contents I passed poetry with such titles as “Elegy for a Dead Soldier”, “The Gun”, Homecoming”, “V-Letter”, and “Troop Train” so it didn’t surprise me that “Hospital” had a wounded military feel to it. After a little more research I discovered that yes, Shapiro did serve in World War II, specifically in the Pacific.
There is nothing obvious in “Hospital” that screams war, and yet there is a frantic need to answer the questions of death. Where does one go after life has ended? Who deserves to die? And what is to become of the soul? Pain is addressed early. Nurses controlling and caring.
Favorite line, “These reached to heaven and inclined their heads
While starchy angels reached them into beds…” (p 78).
BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter, “Good Things Come in Small Packages” (p 103). Here’s the funny thing – Shapiro’s poem, “Hospital” is only mentioned to explain the title of the small package: Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein (which I will read in May).
It’s like a mantra. Things happen for a reason. Things happen for a reason. Things happen for a reason. I know this to be true. We didn’t succeed with the first few houses because they were not ours to have. Something bigger and better lay at the end of Ivy. The timing was all wrong in November. February couldn’t be more perfect. Things happen for a reason.
When my friend decided not to walk the twenty miles for Project Bread. I was not surprised, yet disappointed all the same. It took me a day to think things through. Would I walk without? Would I want to? It took me a week to bail myself out. Things happen for a reason. In reality, walking for hunger is a good cause for someone else. I am wedded to the crusade against cancer and domestic abuse. Been there, done that. Keep doing this. I decided to walk away from the Project Bread walk and find my Just Cause. 60 miles in three days. For breast cancer. This I can do. This I don’t mind doing on my own. I walk for Nor. I walk for me. This is the walk I am meant to walk.
When my friend of 35 years had a heart attack I had mixed emotions. A long history of ups and downs, goods and bads clouded my real emotion – fear. You don’t want people your own age to die. It’s not your time so it shouldn’t be theirs. Butbutbut, things happen for a reason. For the past three months I have wallowed in self indulgences. Since Thanksgiving I have been giving into temptations of every persuasion. Fat and lazy, I have become. When someone told me I looked beautiful I knew it was a lie. A sweet lie, but a lie none the less. I’m heavy. My heart failing friend woke selfish me, myself & moi up. Things happen for a reason. As soon as this house thing happens I am running back to healthy. I swear.
When a good, good friend brought up a painful memory it was hard to face it. Hard to take ownership of it and say yes, I really did do that. It’s unimaginable now, but yes, I really, really did that. Blame game. Pointing you out for no reason other than to strike out. Things happen for a reason. I’m glad you brought up the past and that awful time. I’m still struggling with what happened and more importantly, why butbutbut I’m done burying that past. I can dig it up and say I take responsibility for being so awful to you. I take all the blame for the blame game. It wasn’t you. Never was you. Sorry I said it was you. I’m seeing things better now that I’m so removed.
A true story.
The man needed to take his cat to the vet. She had stopped eating and was starting to vomit. All the time. He had her in a carrier. He had a carrier for his cat, but no car for himself. His cat came first, always. So he took a bus and took his cat to the vet. Cancer, they said. Nothing we can do, they said. They did not charge him. So the man left to take his cat home. Went to the same bus stop he got off from. When the bus pulled up he slowly climbed aboard, holding his carrier more carefully than before. A cat dying of cancer needs more care. He took his seat with a sigh. “No animals on the bus” the driver said looking up in the mirror. What do you mean no animals? But, that is how I got here, the man replied. “I don’t care. No animals on the bus.” The bus driver was louder now, glaring back at him in the reflection. “You’re holding up my schedule. Get off my bus.” But, this isn’t your bus. The man argued back. So, I’m not leaving. The bus driver, furious now, ordered everyone else off the bus and called the police. The man with the cat stayed where he was.
When the police arrived they questioned the driver. The man with the cat looked down on the interrogation from his high bus window. The police officer’s arms were folded across his chest. The bus driver was gesturing wildly. Soon, the officer climbed onto the bus and headed back to the man with the cat. “What seems to be the problem here?” he asked. No problem, the man answered. I just want to take my cat home. She’s sick. “It’s a law – no animals on the bus.” The police officer looked at the cat. You will have to arrest me because I have no other way home. Take me in handcuffs, the man replied. And that is what the officer did.
But, the story doesn’t end there. On the ride to the station the man with the cat and the cop got to talking. The officer mentioned he had a cat. The man with the cat mentioned he was bipolar and relied on the goodness of strangers to help him cope with his disease. The officer mentioned his sister was bipolar. Soon they were exchanging stories about the ups and downs of illness, human and feline. Instead of taking the man with the cat downtown he asked him where he lived. Then, he took the sick man and his sick cat home.
In honor of National Health Month I decided to read As I Live and Breathe. I always find memoirs interesting when the author is more than your average individual. Who doesn’t? Dr. Weisman also has a talent for words which makes her unique story all that more compelling.
Dr. Jamie Weisman is a unique woman. While living within the confines of her illness she chose to do something about it, she joined the medical profession. As she says in her memoir, “”Now that I’ve finished medical school, I know what all those names mean, what diseases they describe, but you cannot know what they are as an illness until you see them in a patient” (p 15). Not only is her condition (congenital autoimmune deficiency disorder) rare and confusing, but her duality of patient and doctor gives her an interesting perspective- from bedside manner of doctor to bedridden patient. Because she is able to really know what the patient is experiencing she can deliver the empathy necessary for individuals really suffering.
My only real disappointment was the organization of the chapters. Dr. Weisman jumps around, remembering patients and her own childhood at random. I would have prefered a more chronological accounting. The last two chapters of the book, “begotten” and “begetting” are warmer and more personal and as a result seem a departure from the more clinical previous chapters.
“Our diseases overwhelm us at the strangest times” (p 16).
“I knew no happy lawyers” (p 31).
BookLust Twist: From both Book Lust and More Book Lust. In Book Lust in the chapter called, “Physicians Writing More Than Prescriptions” (p 185), and in More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Other People’s Shoes (p 181).
Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face.New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
I had all the right conditions to finish this book in two days – traveling, vacationing, but most of all, fascination. I couldn’t put it down. On the surface Autobiography of a Face is the tragic story of one woman’s struggle with cancer and journey through recovery. Only her struggle isn’t as an adult. She is a child. Confronting Ewing’s sarcoma at age nine Lucy battles through radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Her tone can only be described as matter of fact as she recounts the loneliness and pain after countless surgeries to correct the deformity of losing a third of her jaw. Deeper than that, Autobiography is about rising above the cruelty of others, shaking off the superficial prejudices of what supposedly makes a face beautiful. Lucy is defiant and remarkably stoic in her recollections of childhood taunts, adult avoidance, and across the board lack of social acceptance.
Critics call this book the vehicle with which to free oneself from self loathing and fears of rejection. It is a message to stop wallowing in self pity and live with dignity – no matter what. It’s also a call to be human and have real emotions as Lucy admits, “and as much as I wanted to love everybody in school and waft esoterically into the ether when someone called me ugly, I was plagued with petty desires and secret, evil hates” (p 181).
My favorite quote: “speaking seemed like something one could grow tired of” (p 77).
Lucy’s story ends with her getting published, finding friendships and getting on with her life. Yet, there is a darkness to it all. She is criticized for not telling the whole truth. There is mystery surrounding her untimely death in 2002. Her story leaves you asking what happened and wanting more. What the book doesn’t tell you is that her multiple surgeries led to an addiction to pain meds and subsequently, heroin. She died of an overdose at the age of 39. There is more drama after death, but I’ll leave that for you to figure out.
BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust and the chapter “Other People’s Shoes” (p 181). I can’t even begin to imagine being in Lucy’s shoes.