Archive for September, 2018

Far From The Tree / Andrew Solomon

While most parents realize that their children will have a personality of their own, few expect or can imagine a child that does not match society’s prevailing norms.  In this fascinating book, Andrew Solomon chronicles stories of families coping (and not always succeeding) when they learn that their child has an inherited or acquired trait foreign to their experience.  Solomon brings his own unique perspective to the work.  Being gay, he was raised at a time when such an orientation was considered a disease, something shameful that was frequently blamed on poor parenting.

His opening chapter, Son, focuses on his childhood and early adulthood in which both his parents and he struggled to understand and accept his sexual orientation.  The closing chapter, Father, addresses his decision to become a father later in life.  Between these bookends, Solomon’s presence mostly disappears as he documents the stories of parents dealing with the demands and emotions experienced when a son or daughter is born with a perceived handicap or trait that sets them apart from other children.

In separate chapters, Solomon first writes about families dealing with inherited conditions: deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple severe disabilities.  In the book’s second half, he focuses on acquired traits, such as children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, or who are transgendered.  Throughout, he highlights the difficulty parents face in raising a child who has fallen far from the tree.  Not only do they have to come to terms with their own shattered dreams, they must deal with a world in which their children do not easily fit.  And yet in most cases, he documents the triumphs of love over prejudice.

Reading this book brought to the surface a good many of my own prejudices.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable around the severly disabled, and subconsciously I questioned why parents  did not let their babies die in infancy rather than spend an incredible amount of money to keep them alive.  And in light of today’s transgender rights movement, I had a hard time accepting (or understanding) their demands for equality.  By putting human faces and personalities to the labels these children have been given, I was forced to confront my own lack of compassion.

Throughout the book, Solomon is never judgemental of the parents who fall short of their ideals when raising their children.  He does not sugar coat the problem and provide a happily ever after ending.  For these parents and children there is no magic wand that can be waved to make it all better.  In his summary, Solomon writes, “Insofar as I have written a self-help book, it is a how-to manual for receptivity: a description of how to tolerate what cannot be cured, and an argument that cures are not always appropriate even when they are feasible.”  Far From The Tree was an eye (and heart) opener for me.  It is must reading not only for expecant or current parents, but for all struggling to accept society’s outliers.  After all, there is no such thing as a normal child.  Diversity is indeed the spice of life.

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Enon / Paul Harding

In Paul Harding’s second novel, Charlie Crosby’s thirteen year old daughter, Kate, is killed after being struck by a car when biking home from the beach.  An only child, Kate had an especially close relationship with her father.  Consumed by grief in the weeks following the accident, Crosby’s marriage falls apart and his wife returns to her parents’ home in the Midwest.  Shortly before this, Charlie breaks his hand when, in a fit of anger, he punches a hole into a plastered wall.  Prescribed pain pills, he begins to overmedicate and quickly becomes addicted.  Shunning human contact, he becomes a hermit, finding his only solace in the pills and alcohol.

Enon is the New England town where he was born and raised.  It is a biblical name that means cloud, eye, fountain, or more telling in this case, a mass of clouds.  The title aptly describes Charlie Crosby’s spiral into the depths of depression and addiction in the year following his daughter’s death.  He becomes a ghost no longer alive in the world, but still haunting it.  In the dead of night, he continually sneaks to the cemetery to visit the graves of his daughter, parents, and grandparents. In his befuddled state, he is caught in a loop of memories where he tries to keep Kate’s presence within reach.

Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, also set in Enon, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize.  The book showcased his talents as a gifted writer.  Those skills are put to good use in this book as well.  It is a harrowing account of a father’s turbulent descent into an all encompassing grief.  The most touching segments of this novel are where Crosby recalls various times spent in his daughter’s company.  Without a doubt, Harding captures one man’s shattering tragedy, one that any parent can identify with.  And yet, despite his powerfully honest prose, Enon eventually left me disappointed.

One reason for that is the book’s dark subject matter.  Such raw grief makes for uncomfortable reading.  But it also has several flaws that I found off-putting.  The reasons for his wife leaving him and their lack of contact afterwards are never discussed.  And I found it odd that not one friend steps forward to try and save Charlie from his demons.  Throughout the story, I kept waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.  When it does finally arrive, his recovery is only briefly touched upon in the concluding chapter.  After spending so much time describing Crosy’s dark descent, his road to recovery is mostly left unaddressed.

Melancholy Flower

Even though it might have known
a day of joy,
this “like new” wedding dress
for sale online
seems like a melancholy flower
there among
the descriptive used car ads.

It demands a detailed backstory:
the shame of
being left standing at the altar,
poverty’s crushing
weight overruling sentimentality,
a dream that
withered shortly after first bloom.

Still, there is no mention made
of the heart
it held for a few precious hours,
a vow that
promised to stretch to eternity,
how her mirror
certainly blushed in admiration.

Then again, could it be a fairytale
of a princess
cherished until her final breath,
and perhaps
melancholy flower, it was simply
time for death
to come clean out the closets.

Playacting

Tipsy, I pretended
to shoot an arrow at the moon
as it floated above,
plump as a summer fed hen,
and grunted in surprise
when, acting mortally wounded,
it seemed to succumb
in the arms of a passing cloud.

Hours later, returning
from a neighbor’s hospitality,
theatrically trying to
walk a straight line back home,
I discovered overhead
my supposed victim, unruffled,
still playacting as it
basked in dawn’s curtain call.

After Gaining My Trust

A proffered handshake
to say we can still be friends,
it stiffly disengages
when my feeble grip persists.

Having whispered
sweet nothings for decades,
youth betrays me,
sneaking off with my dreams.

Always distracting
me from the mirror’s proof,
it promised there
was no need for concern.

How can I forgive
the sin, such treachery, when
its implanted image
continues to breathe within?

Loitering With Intent / Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was a prolific writer, publishing works from 1950 through 2004, two years before her death at age 88.  Mostly known for her numerous novels, she was also a well-regarded poet, wrote several biographies and plays, as well a children’s book.  Loitering With Intent, a novel, was published in 1981 when she was 64.  Told in the first person, it purports to be a memoir that tells how a then-struggling author, Fleur Talbot, came to write her first novel, Warrender Chase.  In the “fullness of [her] years,” Fleur looks back to the days and months of 1949-1950 when she came to create her first significant work.  Even though financially challenged, she describes this period of her life as joyous.  Fueled by youthful enthusiasm and a passion for writing, Fleur never doubts for a moment that she had found her true calling in life.

Set in a London still dealing with strict rationing following the war, Fleur relates how she got involved as a secretary for the Autobiographical Association, a collection of rich egoists who decide to compose their memoirs in advance.  The leader of this group, the pompous Sir Quentin Oliver, has hired her to improve and spice up the poorly written memoirs of the Association’s members.  Fleur soon begins to suspect that he may be running a con game, intending to use their memoirs for some nefarious purpose.  Sir Quentin and his little sect will become the fuel for her writing career.  Late in the book, Fleur confesses, “under one form or another, whether I have liked it or not, I have written about them ever since, the straws from which I made my bricks.”

I have no idea if, through Fleur, Spark is telling the story of her own early days as a writer.  Nevertheless, her lead character captures what young women writers at the time were subjected to in a profession dominated by men.  Exemplified by Fleur, one comes to understand the satisfaction that writing brought to Spark herself.  In this novel, she shows not only how life influences fiction, but how in turn fiction influences the world around it.  Loitering With Intent is a paean to the joys that creativity brings to writers, good or bad.

The novel, while funny throughout, also seriously addresses the foibles of writing an autobiography.  It can be used to excuse or deflect shortcomings one would rather not confess.  As Fleur herself admits, “I was aware of a demon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were.”  In the members of the Autobiographical Association, Spark presents a motley cast of characters she takes delight in sinking her teeth into.  A decade following her death, Spark’s life work continues to enchant readers discovering the gift that she shared with the rest of us.

Janesville : An American Story / Amy Goldstein

Janesville is a medium sized city located in southern Wisconsin.  Throughout the Twentieth Century, it prospered because of two major employers, the Parker Pen Company and General Motors.  In its heyday, GM’s auto plant there employed over 4,000 people.  These were well paying union jobs that ensured a solid middle class existence for most employees.  Thanks to this strong economic base, many believed that the city would continue to prosper for generations to come.  This was proved wrong when, at the start of the Great Recession in 2008, both industries closed their doors there, and soaring unemployment knocked many people from their middle class perch into needing government assistance to ward off hunger and homelessness.  In a year’s time, the world was turned upside down in Janesville.

In this exposé of the events that followed in Janesville, Amy Goldstein focuses on a select number of families, showing the devastation that occurred on a personal level as the city grappled with how to respond to the double whammy of two major employers leaving town at the same time that the economy tanked universally during the Great Recession.  Portraying both sides of the political divide, she chronicles a city’s attempt to rebrand itself in a world where the loss of high paid jobs were replaced by employment that came nowhere close to providing the wages that most were making before.

Goldstein shows that, despite the best intentions of active citizens in rebuilding their devastated city, what they were able to provide fell far short of replacing the jobs lost.  Even when funds were provided for reeducation of those left unemployed, many were still not able to make the transition to jobs better suited to today’s new economy.

Following the arc of citizens in Janesville affected by the Great Recession through 2013, Goldstein paints a picture of why it was so difficult for these families to find firm footing despite the subsequent rebound of the stock market.  Despite the efforts of a determined city intent on rebuilding its former middle class existence, there was no way to cushion such a devastating blow.  It is a story that is, in part, a harbinger of Trump’s election in 2016.

Janesville is not a tale that highlights a community’s failure.  Rather, it sympathetically details a city’s determination to overcome the label of just another casualty in today’s economic environment.  Even if not totally succeeding in the quest, Goldstein provides a picture of a Midwestern community’s refusal to become just another Rust Belt city.  While the book does not provide a clear pathway to Janesville’s recovery, it portrays a city intent on survival.  The lessons learned in this community will be valuable to cities across the country as they wrestle to find ways to recreate an economy that provides hope to working class citizens when lost union jobs are unlikely to return.