Monthly Archives: August 2016

“Kiss Me Like a Stranger” by Gene Wilder

This hasn’t happened to me before: a famous person dies while his autobiography is in my “write a blog post” pile. Gene Wilder died yesterday.

The book is subtitled “My Search for Love and Art”. Wilder talks more about love than art, and occasionally provided more personal detail than I wanted to assimilate.

My favorite of Wilder’s movies (by far!) is The Producers. It’s “over the top” in so many wonderful ways. Wilder and Zero Mostel are an amazing comic duo.

I didn’t like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Too weird for me.

Some of the best writing in the book is about Wilder’s marriage to Gilda Radner. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1989 was tragic. Wilder’s subsequent accomplishments in fighting ovarian cancer and establishing the Gilda’s Club charities were notable. There’s a chapter of Gilda’s Club near me, and I took advantage of it when my best friend was stricken with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Ironically, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999. It was successfully treated, and his death was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. As Gilda Radner’s alter ego Roseanne Rosannadanna said, it’s always something!

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“The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

This very recent (2013) book is about civil war and the ways people respond to violence within their communities. It’s one of those books that makes me ask “why fiction”? Why not tell the truth, as completely as possible? Is the reading public burnt out on truth from war zones? Minor quibble…

Forna begins by creating her protagonist, an inscrutable man named Duro. He is educated and sophisticated beyond his chosen status in life, that of a small town “day laborer” who supplements his income by hunting. He lives alone with two hunting dogs, and is intensely tuned in to the hilly landscape around him. He is also intensely tuned in to the past, to memories and long ago decisions. He describes the past as being like a child imprisoned behind the walls of a room. Sometimes the child stirs and calls out…

I’m not familiar with the recent history of Yugoslavia, so sometimes I found the plot of The Hired Man disorienting. Forna does not specify people’s ethnic identities. I’m willing to assume she wanted the story to seem “universal”. Reading reviews on Amazon, I learned that plainly many readers disliked this approach.

Duro becomes hired man and tour guide to an English family (mother and two teenagers) who move into the empty “blue house” (which is practically a character) for a summer holiday. Interesting choice of family… The teenagers are unformed, in perpetual change, compared to their slightly stuffy, vaguely clueless mother, whose name is Laura.

Duro keeps all information about the recent (16 years previous?) civil war from the family, claiming his father and sister died in “an accident” and the fighting happened somewhere else. He begins to play dangerous games, using the family to stir painful local memories. For instance, he fixes an old car and encourages Laura to drive it. It reminds the village residents of the former owners, who disappeared during the conflict. Laura has no idea why people sometimes treat her with strange hostility.

I attended a discussion of The Hired Man with a local book club. One line of interpretation had to do with “tribalism”. This was defined as ethnic identification based on very, very long term tenure on land, hence, something possible in Europe or Africa, but not in North America except among indigenous people. An attempt to analyze racial tensions in the United States didn’t go very far. I felt like I was hearing an assertion of “it can’t happen here” which made me feel uncomfortable.

The name of Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, who died in early July, was mentioned. How did he “come to terms” with what he witnessed during World War II? How did he become a leader and a “hero of human rights”? I was reminded of this quotation from Aeschylus:

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Wiesel transcended the Holocaust. He became wise.

I don’t think Duro was headed for transcendence. I think his fate was to be locked between vengeance and reconciliation, his life suspended and painfully incomplete.

But that’s just me, projecting into Forna’s astonishing novel. Some of us wondered if there may be a sequel. It’s hard to let go of the characters.

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

I read this book years ago, probably not long after it came out in 2003. I found it as I pursued my (literary) interest in mountains and climbing. (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is one of my top ten favorite books.)

Case histories make up the heart of this book. I guess we all read about disasters and wonder “Would I have been a survivor? Or a statistic?”

Gonzales treats survival as both an art and a science.

I decided to put my fictional hero Mark Watney (of The Martian) up against Gonzales’ list of survivor traits. How does Mark do?

First of all, Mark manages to believe that the “impossible” has happened. He survived a series of mischances that left him alone on Mars. (Denial wasn’t going to help.) He scores very high indeed on thinking and planning, and he was superbly trained. Humor is important, and Mark is an unapologetic wise guy.

What about play? Gonzales emphasizes the importance of having “stuff in your head”, like poetry, stories, mathematical problems or prayers. Mark is short on this, but in his high tech world, he raids his departed companions “entertainment” files, reading murder mysteries, listening to disco and watching re-runs of old TV shows.

What else? Gonzales emphasizes persistence, but doesn’t say that much about creativity. Watney was creative, and came up with the highly improbable intervention that led to the book’s happy ending.

Most important, I think, in Gonzales’ analysis, was that Watney did things even when they didn’t seem likely to work. Like growing potatoes. So I would say that Mark Watney rated about 60% or 70% against Gonzales ‘ list of survival supporting characteristics. But, hey, its fiction…

Who should read Deep Survival?

  • Anyone involved with or curious about emergency management.
  • Anyone who takes risks intentionally – like mountaineering or white water rafting.
  • All parents of teenaged boys – they are biologically programmed to take risks!

Gonzales has published another book entitled Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience. I plan to read it.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.

Letter to my High School French teacher

Dear Dr. Schacht,

Barbara K (with whom I have maintained a lifelong friendship) has encouraged me to write to you about our time at Hall High and your role in our education. I am happy to do so!

Marian G remembers our culinary adventures (did you eat periwinkles?). I remember our singing! You rendered La Marseillaise with great conviction. I can still sing at least one drinking song. I remember the realization that French is pronounced a little bit differently when sung.

Studying French always seemed somewhat peripheral to me in high school. I knew from early on that I was headed for training in the sciences. The value of language training became evident to me gradually, as I traveled and struggled to understand the world around me.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to become fluent in spoken French. Did you know I dropped out of our French class in senior year because of a health problem? Infected tonsils! But we had already covered lots of ground, and I value what I learned.

My next language was German, required for Chemistry majors at Michigan State University, where I earned my undergraduate degree. Despite studying German for only just over a year, I became more proficient than I was with French, because I spent a long summer holiday in Germany in 1971. I traveled with IAESTE, the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, a United Nations program. IAESTE arranged jobs for students. I worked at the Institut fur Kernforschung in Berlin, in the company of a dozen or so other foreign students. German was our first common language, English second, then French, then handwaving… It was a wonderful summer, and came at a time when my American campus (located not so far from Kent State in Ohio) was riven with political stress.

I also count Dutch in my linguistic toolbox. I learned it word-for-word from German. I also spent an IAESTE summer in the Netherlands, at the Technical University of Eindhoven.

Berlin and Eindhoven will always be special to me.

I’ve spent most of my career at a small public college in southern New Jersey, now (grandiosely?) titled Stockton University. I taught Environmental Chemistry and Pollution Management. Applied chemistry and engineering are my strengths. Recently, I’ve worked in Facilities Management, specializing in “green” design and energy management.

Stockton University lists “global awareness” as a pillar of its education, but does not require students to study a language. Harrumph!

I have two sons, now ages 26 and 32. My older son got excellent training in Spanish during high school, completing an Advanced Placement class. His college of choice was St. John’s in Maryland, the “Great Books” college, where everyone studies two years each of Greek and French. After college, he traveled to Argentina.

I regret to say that my younger son learned only rudimentary French and Spanish. But he aspires to travel.

I have not yet read your books of which Barbara gave me copies. I plan to do so. Almost everything I read is “reviewed” in my blog (AMG Reading Journal at http://www.amgreader.wordpress.com) which I invite you to visit.

I want to thank you for being part of the good educational experience I had at Hall High. I wish you good health.

Sincerely, Alice G

Hall High School, class of 1967

 

“The Rosie Project: A Novel” by Graeme Simsion

I read this novel because I watched someone react to it – she kept laughing. The premise (“it isn’t easy being autistic”) isn’t funny. I enjoyed The Rosie Project much more than I expected. It’s funny AND engaging.

Don Tillman is an autistic genius with a research and teaching appointment in genetics at an Australian university. He knows that his social skills are lacking. Deciding that life would be better with a wife, he designs a questionnaire that he expects will find him the ideal candidate. He also knows he needs practice in dating and socializing. A friend throws a “wildcard” candidate at him. Rosie fails to qualify according to several of Don’s criteria, but she attracts his interest.

Don refers to his quest as The Wife Project. Rosie has a quest of her own, The Father Project. She wants to find her genetic father.

Don and Rosie adventure boldly together, despite the confusion generated by their wildly different mental habits, and form an intense romantic bond.

Recently I read an article (on Facebook?) about the concept of “cognitive diversity”. It has been suggested that problem solving by groups would be improved by the intentional inclusion of people on the autism spectrum. In theory, the differences in the world view should improve decision making outcomes.

I have a further suggestion. What about brain injury survivors? Surely a person who makes a comeback from a major brain injury has a brain that is “different”, with major use of alternative pathways and other “work arounds”. Might he or she see something important in a situation that others would miss?

Meanwhile, I’m going to download Simsion’s next book, The Rosie Effect, against my next train trip or rainy afternoon. Or for when I need a good laugh.

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!