Archive for November, 2016

The Princess Casamassima / Henry James

Hyacinth Robinson is the central character of this Henry James novel, published in book format in 1886. Hyacinth is the illegitimate son of a Frenchwoman who stabbed her lover, an English lord, to death, and he was adopted as a baby by an impoverished seamstress. He leads an uneventful life until, as an older child, he is taken to a prison to visit a woman on her death bed. Eventually, Hyacinth learns that the dying woman is his mother and that she murdered his father. The news also confirms something that his adopted mother has long alluded to – that he is of noble descent.

In the past year, I’ve read three other novels by James: The American, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. All dealt with individuals who were either born into the upper class or were wealthy enough to dispense with work of any kind. That is why the opening chapters of The Princess Casamassima came as such a pleasant surprise to me. Rather than focusing on the idle elite, the focal point was on London’s poverty-stricken working class. In this environment, Hyacinth, now a young man, becomes a skilled bookbinder. He also meets a number of revolutionaries and gets involved in radical politics.

Ah, but with the book being entitled The Princess Casamassima, I knew the privileged class would play a major role in the story. And soon enough, Hyacinth is befriended by the beautiful eponymous princess. It is at this point that James returns to familiar ground and any hope of focusing on poverty-stricken Londoners is lost. The Princess, it turns out, is a revolutionary, too. A woman separated from her dull Italian husband, she is rapidly giving away her fortune in support of a popular uprising.

Shortly before meeting the Princess, Hyacinth pledges to carry out a terrorist assassination if called upon to do so. Ironically though, once he is introduced to the Princess and has the opportunity to visit Paris and Rome (having inherited his adoptive mother’s humble savings), Hyacinth’s radical ardor rapidly begins to cool. This is contrasted with the Princess Casamassima’s growing fervor for socialism, so much so that she gives up her rich lifestyle and tries to live like a commoner. Yet while Hyacinth no longer believes in a violent overthrow of the social order, he refuses to retract his vow to the shadowy revolutionary group he is affiliated with.

The story in this novel never quite gels. While it presenting an interesting concept, James seems to lack a clear understanding of the lower classes. A good many of the working class men portrayed here come across as caricatures. The reader is given little insight into the minds of any of the characters except for Hyacinth himself, and his actions at the book’s conclusion are never fully explained. The Princess Casamassima herself is viewed from the outside looking in, and little is learned about her inner motivations. It seems to me that James was intent on creating a political thriller, one with a shocking ending. I wonder whether a hack writer might have created a more suspenseful read. There is no denying that the book is well written, and as always, James excels at describing Hyacinth’s personal relationships. Yet in the end, the story struck me as overblown, much ado about little at all. Worse, it lacked the necessary insight to capture the gritty aspects of the working and living conditions of the time period.

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Frozen Season

During this long frozen season
the birds do not speak,
no fly awakens to thump there
between panes of glass.
Night again settles like a lump
caught in the throat.
Tiny bandits, children muffled
in caps and scarves
show only their hungry eyes.
Silence is contagious,
like a case of the flu, couples
come down with it.
Monitoring the season’s cold
inanimate chest,
that ear pressed to the window.
Despite the chill,
hope’s stethoscope patiently
waits to be consoled
by the sound of a solitary drip.

A Killer Confesses

Goldfish overfed. Ant hills stomped flat.
Wiggling worms impaled.
The fish never thrown back. Insects galore.
Butterflies pinned and
classified. Bulbs planted in paper cups,
only to be forgotten.
Then, in adulthood, on to bigger game.
A rabbit that never saw
the bullet coming. Trespassing mice and
bats. Friends stabbed
in the back. The occasional roadway
squirrel that hesitated
a second too long. And yes, I duly admit,
even love’s bright flame.
Ah, but Your Honor and jury members,
I emphatically deny
killing those dreams once held so dear.
They simply gave up
the ghost when accosted by the inevitable.

Night Of Stone : Death And Memory In Twentieth-Century Russia / Catherine Merridale

The upheavals taking place in the Soviet Union during the course of the twentieth century caused the deaths of more than fifty million people. In just twenty-five years’ time, the country witnessed a revolution, a civil war, several major famines and epidemics, political purges, and the invasion of the German army during World War II. Night of Stone, written by Catherine Merridale, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol, examines what effects these events had on those who lived through the period. Specifically, she focuses on how such catastrophes changed people’s views regarding death and an afterlife, as well as post-traumatic stress (PTSD) issues that developed as a result.

For a good part of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was ruled by the Communist Party. As Merridale details through numerous interviews with survivors of this period, the government tried to impose an atheist alternative to funeral ceremonies and religious beliefs. While the authorities closed a majority of the churches in the country, belief in God and an afterlife remained strong, even among Party members. And with the fall of the Communist government, the Orthodox Church quickly came back to life with all of its traditional rites intact.

The finding that the government failed to destroy religious belief in the Soviet Union was not surprising. What was unexpected to the author were the social effects that catastrophe had on the country’s collective memory. Before carrying out her interviews, she anticipated encountering numerous cases of PTSD among the victims, perpetrators, and witnesses to past violent acts. However, she found little evidence of PTSD in medical records. And while she did encounter obvious cases of the condition in her interviews, few of the afflicted were willing to admit to it. There seem to be two reasons for this: the Russian medical profession continues to frown upon PTSD as a recognized diagnosis, and people are reluctant to dig up ghastly memories from the past, preferring instead to just get on with life. Embracing a status of “victim” is shunned by most. Merridale ends her book by expressing the hope that with education, modern Russians will not simply bury their experience of PTSD or guilt, but will confront the country’s past history in open discussion and begin a true healing process.

Night of Stone was published in 2000, shortly before Vladimir Putin put an end to Russia’s fledgling democracy. Since that time, the memories of past sins seem to have been suppressed even more deeply. Nationalism has replaced self-reflection on the rights and wrongs of the country’s past. Ironically, Putin has co-opted Orthodox Christianity to ensure that he remains in power. While this book will hold great interest to scholars and individuals well versed in Russian culture, for those in search of a general introduction to the Soviet Union’s recent history, Night of Stone will disappoint.

Do No Harm : Stories Of Life, Death, And Brain Surgery / Henry Marsh

In Do No Harm, Henry Marsh, an eminent British neurosurgeon, looks back at a number of unique cases he has been involved in over his long career. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of brain tumor and a patient with the disease. By focusing on a real person and their life history, he puts a human face to the types of brain tumors he describes. He addresses the conflicts he faces when deciding whether to carry out a surgery or admit that there is nothing that can be done to save a life. Also discussed in detail is how difficult it is to break bad news to a patient and/or family members.

Even more importantly, Marsh examines a number of cases in which medical errors were made by him or his medical team in the course of a surgery. In admitting these mistakes, he reveals not only the outcome for the patient, but the psychological impact these events have had on him over the years. And yet, mistakes are a fact of life in neurosurgery, where the surgeon has to make difficult decisions in the face of of urgency and uncertainty.

While this all sounds rather grim, the book is anything but. The stories are presented with compassion, and so they prove to be more fascinating than dark. Sprinkled throughout are humorous passages about the bureaucracy he must deal with in the British health care system. There is the endless paperwork, computer systems that do not work as they should, and electronic records that confuse rather than enlighten about a patient’s condition. I laughed out loud reading about the mandatory class on customer relations he was forced to attend while having to postpone a surgery to do so.

What makes Do No Harm such an enjoyable read is Marsh himself. He came into practice in the 1980s at a time when doctors were obeyed without question. I began to work in health care at about the same time as he did, and I’ve met many physicians with the same personality. Colorful characters, they often would throw temper tantrums or ignore the bureaucratic rules, but throughout, they battled in their patients’ best interests while working incredibly long hours.

Thanks to the author’s brutal honesty and self-reflection, Do No Harm vividly captures his triumphs, disasters, regrets, and the black humor he uses to cope psychologically. The book provides not only a unique glimpse behind the operating room doors, it equips the reader with a better understanding of both the drama and mundane aspects of modern brain surgery.

Breaking Something

This deep in winter, with everything
frozen solid,
I feel like breaking something,
be it a window
encased in frost, the monotony,
my dormant heart,
anything to contradict the sound of
ice thickening,
that wind crystallizing the season.

Instead, by the fire, I escape into
a book’s babble,
reading until a river of lines blurs
and hardens,
silencing the words’ cacophony.
Held captive in
the arms of a chair’s rigid frame,
logs now embers,
I find the chill has stiffened me, too.

Rooted In Place

Although they
can step into the air and escape,
feeling at home
in this world gone colorless,
crows blend with
the season’s desolate beauty.
Stoic sentinels to
the great escape taking place,
stiffened trees
shoulder the concrete weight
of an exposed sky.
A one-way route pointing south,
all afternoon, it
has been a busy highway with
traffic honking.
As dusk’s encroachment erases
crows and trees,
bent over my rake, I too vanish,
rooted in place.