nox book coverSome books just do not work as books. So what is a writer to do when they want to express something which does not fit into the usual binding? It helps when you are Anne Carson, an established poet and classicist, and you are writing on an usual subject.

Nox (Latin for “night”) is an elegy, or as Carson says, and epitaph, for her estranged and now deceased brother, Michael. Battling drug use, Carson says he left the United States in the late 1970’s in order not to go to jail. She would never see him again, and only spoke to him six times in over 20 years. During that time he traveled under false names, fell in love with a woman and was devastated when she died young, was married twice, and already had his ashes scattered before his sister found out he was dead.

But this is no collection of stories about her brother; it is a scrapbook of pictures, fragments of letters, Carson’s own thoughts, and other items. Instead of fitting it into the regular book format, “Nox” comes is an accordion style book which comes in book shaped box.
nox layout

So how does this book manage to succeed in tying together such arange of items? Catullus’ poem No. 101, an elegy written by the poet when he arrived at his brother’s grave. Catullus was a first century, BC, Roman poet, who learned too late of his brother’s death to be there in time for the burial. Carson provides the poem in Latin, and then gives the etymology of each word in the 63-word poem on the left hand side, while the items relating to her brother are on the right. Toward the end, you finally get the poem in English, although she says that translating the work does not work well as the meanings of some of the words are lost in other languages.

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.

Carson’s own words and arrangement of her brother’s show her poetic tendencies. A moving story of her brother always being on edge of others, is across the page from “sunt.” Carson gives the definition of “to be (continue) among the living; (of things) to be in existence.” Her story of her brother, one of the longest memories given, tells of a photograph she has of him (shown on the previous page) “about ten years old standing on the ground beneath a treehouse. Above him in the treehouse you can see three older boys gazing down. They have raised the ladder.” She wonders if his future drug use was found in this desire to be where he was not welcome, where he is on the edge. “No one knew him.”

R19787.inddIn the end, what we have is a uniquely personal and moving meditation on death. Of course, we know death by contrasting it with life, but Carson does not pretend that our lives are made up of a simple narrative history. Instead, small elements, diverse elements, create a picture of who we are. She could write a detailed biography of her brother, and we would know less about who he is than we get from her own creation. In great part, this is because we know him only through Carson. And we know other people only through ourselves. It is not possible to know a person as they do themselves; relationships are quite simply that seeking to know another, and be known, in ways which are unique to each relationship. Carson’s brother’s absence for 22 years is an essential element of how she knows him, and she does not try to bridge the gap. That is the beauty of this epitaph. It explores a relationship as it was, and does not seek for more than what exists. As a result, she is respectful of her brother and his life without her, while not forgetting what she remembers of him. What better tribute could be offered?

Read more about Anne Carson at the Poetry Foundation 

The Illusion of Separateness

illusion of separtenessSimon Van Booy likes to write about the interconnectedness of life. Small acts by one person can dramatically impact the life of another, and neither person may even be aware of the connection. But that does not make the connection any less important. Recognizing that we are connected to others, and that those connections are important, should make us more conscious of how we live our lives.

In this most recent novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” (slated for a June release) Van Booy goes directly after this theme, which he has raised in earlier works. This time we bounce back between World War II, 1968, and the present day, between France, and England, and the United States. We meet John, a recently married American pilot shot down over France who then forgets his past; Mr. Hugo, the man with a half-flattened face who chooses to forget his past; Amelisa, a blind woman who creates ways for the blind to experience museum displays, including one with the replica of a plane her grandfather John flew. There are more: Martin, an elderly caretaker at a home for the elderly, who is with the new resident, Mr. Hugo, when he dies. In classic van Booy style, the final chapter ties around to the first, and we find that these two have a connection neither could imagine.

If the book is frustrating at all, it is in the circling of the truth as you wait for Van Booy to connect the stories. You know he will, but he demands patience from the reader as he explores everyone’s story. However, what we see in this circling is that lives exist without the connections being known. We could be the ones living those lives, never aware of how we are connected to others, but still moving froward because of those connections.

“He realized this early on, and realized too that what people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know.”

vanbooyThis is Van Booy’s second novel, and he also has two collections of short stories out (as well as several other projects). His short story background is clear in this novel, where many chapters could stand alone. As the novel unfolds, the connections begin the characters become clearer. But Van Booy avoids any Hollywood style, clunky unveiling of the truth. In fact, the reader is privy to connections the characters never make themselves.

While this seems like a setup for a depressing novel, Van Booy is one of the most hopeful writers around. His other works have explored the theme of love, and he is not afraid to see love as the basis of a good life. Too often, writers focus on love as a setup for failure. But Van Booy appeals to the romantics in the world in that he believes in love.

Van Booy also separates himself from other writers in that he takes children seriously. In one of his previous short stories we see the love of children as the strongest of bonds, and he has not lost that awe of children’s capacity to love and feel.

Early in the novel, we meet young Sebastien, who has discovered the skeletal remains of what was John’s  plane, shot down over France. He thinks about showing this to the young girl he loves, he thinks about the pilot and the photo left behind in the plane, he thinks about what this means in his young life. “The teacher sometimes stops talking, and when Sebastien looks over, she is already looking at him, which means: Why are you looking through the window and not at me? But Sebastien is not looking through the window, but through the scrapbook of things that have pierced his heart.”

This is a line which could shoot down most novels, but in Van Booy’s hands, these lines work. He drops them throughout the novel and they flow naturally from the characters themselves. For Van Booy, every life has a story, and every story is important. That alone makes him unique among novelists, and makes his work worth reading.

You can learn more about Van Booy at his website.

A Gift of Love

a gift of loveMartin Luther King, Jr is well known for so many reasons. A civil rights leader, great orator, great Christian, great pacifist. It is no surprise to find all those elements in “A Gift of Love: Sermons from ‘Strength to Love’ and Other Preachings.” As sermons, they are rooted in the Christian faith. But his call for civil rights, his call for a non-violent struggle, are prominent throughout. King was a preacher of the moment, responding to the needs of his congregation and beyond through the lens of his faith. And his strong oration style can be heard even in reading the sermons, as he brings home his points with a cadence which cannot be missed.

The weaknesses in the sermons are more a matter of their context rather than their thinking. Some of them slip toward self-help language, but they reflect the growing awareness of psychology in one’s thinking. Some of the world political issues are now a moot point, and some of what he sought we have reached.

But that our world has not reached the racial integration he sought is clear, and shameful, 50 years after some of these sermons were preached. What does come through in reading these sermons is King’s faith. He was a Christian, and he interprets what he sees through those eyes. These sermons will not allow him to become a secular hero. The civil rights movement was an expression of his Christian faith. His pacifist viewpoint, which was strengthened by the example of Gandhi, was rooted in his Christian faith.

I will not attempt a break down of each sermon. I read this over a long period and was more interested in their impact on my own faith than that of a book review. His sermon, “Antidotes for Fear,” was given to me by a doctor treating my son, who has been battling cancer for over two years. He is not likely to survive another year, and King’s words spoke to my condition. What stronger testament is there to one’s power as a writer or thinker that 50 years later, they still reach people where needed.

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine

Physician Danielle Ofri’s latest book, “What Doctors Feel,” is part of her ongoing attempt to bridge the patient/doctor gap, as seen in her earlier works. While this latest work focuses on the emotions doctor’s go through, Ofri’s point is that those emotions impact care. Learning more about what doctors feel can help, not only the medical profession, but patients as well. What becomes alarmingly clear is that little is done to help doctors deal with the range of emotions that run through them. As a result, doctors suffer burnout, patients are treated with more distance, and the medical profession as a whole suffers.

As medicine becomes more high tech, there exists the possibility that the distance will grow. Ofri cautions us not to be fooled by such possibilities. “No matter how many high tech tools enter the picture, the doctor-patient interaction is still primarily a human one. And when humans connect, emotions by necessity weave an underlying network.”

Much of the issue is found in the training of the doctors. Ofri shares the work of the 19th century physician and teacher, Sir William Osler, who encouraged young doctors to create a distance between themselves and the patient. The idea centers around the ability to make more logical decisions when the mind is not clouded by emotion. Osler did not want the doctors to treat their patients as mere subjects, but he did not want them distracted from making clear medical decisions.

That training remains, and Ofri uses stories to tell about the times when ignoring the complete care of the patient, in the interest of medical care, led to disasters. Conversely, she shares stories of when doctors have failed to keep that emotional distance, and as a result, better decisions were made. Nevertheless, she bemoans “the consistent and depressing observation that medical students seem to lose prodigious amounts of empathy as they progress along the medical training route.”

Not surprisingly, doctors hit the normal range of emotions. Grief, joy, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, and frustration are all part of the range any normal doctor, or person, will go through. What is different, is the intensity of the emotion. If I make an error in this book review, I may feel guilty, but I do not carry the weight of causing the death of someone due to that mistake. Doctors do.

Where the books wanders at times is when Ofri focuses too much on lawsuits and medical errors. But her point in addressing those areas point out the feelings of guilt and shame that doctors experience. Our tendency to sue for every real or supposed error, contributes to our own problems in the medical world. “Unless we can somehow defuse the shame and loss of self-definition that accompany the admission of medical errors, the gut instinct to hide an error will always be the first lynx to pounce upon the heart.”

Ofri clearly wants us to address the emotional needs of doctors, for their sake and for the sake of patients. Doctors who feel safer making an emotional connection will provide better care for their patients. How we are to improve the system is not clear, but Ofri’s intent seems to simply get the issue recognized. There have been inroads made, and she highlights the work of Herdley Paolini at Florida Hospital, where they have developed a program to address the emotional needs of all their staff. But, clearly, much work remains.

While doctors and patients will benefit from reading Ofri’s work, perhaps legislators and hospital administrators, those with the most power to change the situation, should read this book. Regardless, Ofri’s point is clear. When a doctor and patient interact, they are really two humans interacting. Emotions will be part of the relationship. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what those emotions mean in the medical world.

House Made of Dawn

HouseMadeo_0Also published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

N. Scott Momaday’s first novel, “House Made of Dawn,” is noted by some critics as sparking a renaissance in Native American literature. Published in 1969, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, rave reviews, and a place in the canon of contemporary literature.

So, it is with some hesitation that I admit to not enjoying the novel too much. There seems to be an attempt at being elusive, at showing only part of what is happening, in a way many post-modern novels do. I actually enjoy many novels without the normal narrative, or rising plot structure, but Momaday’s books just fails to connect the pieces when needed.

The novel centers around Abel, who returns to his reservation following his time in World War II. Not long after arriving at home, he murders a man. We pick up the story seven years later in Los Angeles, when Abel is let out of jail. At first, we get the story (or lack thereof) from Abel’s mind, but then it switches to the Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, who gives a long sermon. The sermon shares many stories of the Kiowa tribe, to which Momaday belongs. The tales are interesting and create a better understanding of the Kiowa tribe, but the connection of these to Abel’s situation is not clear. The last major section switches to Abel’s friend, Ben Benally’s, viewpoint of Abel. It is not a pretty picture. He cannot understand the way other Native Americans have assimilated to white culture, and he begins to drink and leaves his job. Eventually, he just disappears.

The narrative comes full circle, and is at its strongest, in the final pages of the novel. Abel disappears so he can return home to care for his dying grandfather, and there seems to be a return to his starting point as he reenters the traditions of his heritage.

As noted before, the novel is seen as creating a publishing spark for writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. Their novels seem are clearer in their narratives, but perhaps Momaday’s challenging storyline reflects the struggle of Native Americans in contemporary life. It hits many of the themes that will dominate other novels, such as assimilation, alcohol abuse, racism, loss of tradition, and a return to Native American roots. Because of its influence, it is worth reading.

Evil Water

Danish writer Inger Wolf’s “Evil Water” is a taut, suspenseful thriller with unexpected twists and several wrong turns. Just when you think you have it figured out, you, and quite often the police, are wrong.

Wolf has published several books in Denmark, but “Evil Water” is her first English translation. Her debut novel, “Sort Sensommer,” was sold in several countries and was named “Most Exciting Crime Novel Debut” by the Danish Crime Academy in 2006. Live “Evil Water,” it features inspector Daniel Trokic, who is also the central character in several of her other novels.

The story focuses on the disappearance to two women with similar colored hair. When their bodies are found packed into two separate suitcases and buried in a farmer’s field, Trokic and his team try to find out who is responsible and why. Adding to the mystery is the letter “Y” which appears on them, and the rare, American flower growing out of their hair.

The tension quickly builds when they realize they are looking for a serial killer with an unknown motive. The crime element almost takes a back seat to the horror element, but this is no supernatural horror. Wolf is delving into darkest corners of the human psyche, and creates a death ritual which will likely keep you awake at night (and away from your bathtub). As other victims appear, Trokic and the others race to find another person before she becomes a victim. And just when they close in on the killer, Wolf throws you for another curve.

Wolf creates so many threads and offshoots, that at times she seems to forget about them. But then, they suddenly reappear and fit neatly into place. She avoids the obvious, artificial solutions and patiently keeps piecing elements together, only to show that when put together, another piece is missing.

Trokic is a classic, hard-boiled detective, with an intense, quiet air about him. His character could use more depth, but since this is her fifth novel about him, perhaps the earlier novels introduce him more (but as of yet, these are not available in English). He has moved up in his career, but regrets needing to spend more time with budgets than investigations. And we see him balancing the need for a personal life with his on the case obsessive qualities.

Of the other characters, police officer and computer expert Lisa Kornelius is one of most interesting. A woman in an all male domain, she refuses to be beaten by another computer expert’s encryption techniques. And when she does break in, she also pushes the moral code for both personal and professional reasons. She questions whether what she does is illegal or immoral, and she has to balance that with whether what she learns could save a life. Her struggles with ethical dilemmas show a struggle few of us will face, but it is good to see a character asking questions for which there are not always answers.

While the Danish names make take some getting used to, you are quickly transported along in the investigation. Wolf intersperses police chapters  with those from the killer’s and victim’s points of view, but without revealing any of the mystery. As such, you have an extra step on the police, but the information is not likely to help you solve it any sooner.

In true crime thriller fashion, Wolf keeps you guessing right to the end. And you will guess wrong. But that makes the book only more interesting.

Wolf has publisauthor inger wolfhed the book with her own publishing house, Black Cat Edition, and it is currently available as an ebook. Her own website is in Danish, but check out her Amazon page for a short English introduction.