Being Mortal

I recently read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston. He writes here about aging, balancing autonomy and security, assisted living and nursing homes, palliative care, dying, necessary conversations about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death.

These topics interest me, and Gawande’s writing — which he claims comes slowly and doesn’t flow easily — is clear and compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which I found dry, though pertinent.  He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of hopes and fears, and how voicing these hopes and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make the best choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides.

The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent. So is Diane Rehm’s conversation with Gawande about the book in Oct 2014.

I had one major quibble with Gawande (and others) philosophically, which I go into at some length at the end of this posting.

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Some ideas that seemed especially critical or revelatory to me (all bolding within quotes is mine for emphasis; italics within quotes are his):

Old Age

For most of history, humans died before they reached old age; for all but the last couple hundred years, the average lifespan was 30 years or less. “Indeed, for most of history, death was a risk at every age of life and had no obvious connection with aging, at all.” A little mind-blowing!

And this was reassuring, given my longevity genes: Genetics have very little to do with longevity: Only 3% of how long a person will live compared with the average lifespan is explained by parents’ longevity, even though some of our other physical limits and features are almost completely tied to genetics, such as height (which is 90% determined by parents’ height).

We Wear Out: Like other complex systems, we don’t just shut down, we wear out. Simple devices “function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant.” But complex systems, as we are, are designed with redundancy:

“We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth. Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. “

Also reassuring for many of us, since we can improve our balance and muscle strength: Falls: The risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than 4 prescription medications, and muscle weakness. “Elderly people without these risk factors have a 12% chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a 100% chance.”

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Autonomy

Nursing homes and other care facilities — designed to appeal to residents’ children, not the residents themselves, and looking to avoid lawsuits — favour safety over autonomy. Most of us “want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.” But then of course, “those we love” want autonomy.

“[O]ur most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

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Health care

Quality of life:

The job of any doctor, [geriatrician Juergen] Bludau later told me, is to support quality of  life, by which he meant two things: as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world.”

My mom died in early December, from complications of Alzheimer’s, after being in a memory care unit and then a 24-hour-nursing room at the same facility for a couple of years. Her life and death remind me that “active engagement in the world” is a relative term; for much of her adult life, she seemed content to sit on her sofa and watch TV most of the day. She could still do this, and seemed to be content doing it, until her last days. I visited her three weeks before she died and she was still engaged by the TV, by me, by the staff, and by the stuffed animals she liked to touch. It concerns me that some people — family, friends, medical professionals — might apply a different interpretation of “active engagement” than is relevant to the experience of the patient.

Well-being:

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

This set of questions actually applies to life outside of medical treatment, too. I could ask these questions about my garden: What is my understanding of the current situation — the soil, the climate, the slope and aspect, the available water, etc. — and the potential outcomes? What pests, diseases, outcomes do I fear and for what growth, beauty, biodiversity do I hope? How much work am I willing to do? What actions should I take that align with my responses?

A medical system that actively inflicts harm: Gawande cites a 2010 study at Massachusetts General Hospital of patients with advanced cancer that showed that “those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

The main two models of doctor-patient relationships are paternalistic — I know best and you should confidently do what I tell you — and informative — here is all the information, data, statistics; now you make a good decision. But “neither type is quite what people desire. We want information and control, but we also want guidance.” Enter the interpretative type of doctor-patient relationship, where the doctor’s role is to help the patient determine what s/he wants. They ask questions, listen to you, and based on your answers, they suggest actions.

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The Difficulty of Medical Decision-Making

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw on.”

We don’t have control and we are not helpless:

“I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities.”

Facts don’t go far enough to help us make decisions; they didn’t for Gawande’s dad or for his patients:

“In theory, a person should make decisions about life and death matters analytically, on the basis of the facts. But the facts were shot through with holes and uncertainties. [My father’s] tumor was rare. No clear predictions could be made. Making choices required somehow filling the gaps, and what my father filled them with was fear. He feared the tumor and what it would do to him, and he also feared the solution being proposed.”

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“The options overwhelmed her. They all sounded terrifying. She didn’t know what to do. I realized, with shame, that I’d reverted to being Dr. Informative—here are the facts and figures; what do you want to do? So I stepped back and asked the questions I’d asked my father: What were her biggest fears and concerns? What goals were most important to her? What tradeoffs was she willing to make, and what ones was she not?”

When my dad was diagnosed at age 73 with bladder cancer, he was blindsided, but soon he seemed to make really good decisions about his treatment and his life generally. I don’t think he told me all the details, but I gather that he was told from the outset that his cancer was likely to be fatal sooner than later. He opted for surgery and an urostomy bag. He was living in Florida then and requested visits from my sisters and me, who lived hundreds of miles away.

I spent a week with him between diagnosis and surgery, during which he asked me, as we wandered one afternoon among the citrus trees near his house, if I had any questions for him, anything I needed or wanted to talk with him about. As I’ve written elsewhere, our relationship as adults had been such that I really didn’t have anything pressing to discuss; we had covered those topics (including death and dying) over the years, on walks, hikes, at meals, in ordinary moments.

He also planned the hikes and trips he wanted to take, to places he had hiked dozens of times and knew intimately, and to Ireland, where he had never hiked but had long wanted to.

Eventually, perhaps when the cancer metastasied to his lungs, he made a few visits to Duke University Medical Center and took some oral chemotherapy for a while. Then he stopped that, requested my sister and me to visit again, fine-tuned his obituary (which he had written years earlier at my request), made cremation arrangements, and within about six weeks, died peacefully, three years after his diagnosis.

There were a few bumps in the road, but generally, his actions seemed focused on the questions Gawande suggests; he acted as much as possible, as much at it was in his control, in accord with his own hopes, fears, and goals, his awareness of what he wanted to avoid and what he wanted to do, how he wanted to live during in his remaining time, however long that might be. I appreciate the modelling.

The Peak End Rule and how it affects decision-making: Patients’ rankings of pain during a procedure are based on the average of just two moments: the single worst moment and the very end of the experience. The duration is not important in our memory, though it is in our actual experience:

The “experiencing self … endures every moment equally and a remembering self … gives almost all the weight of judgement afterward to two single points in time. … If the remembering self and the experiencing self can come to radically different opinions about the same experience, then the difficult question is which one to listen to. … In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. … Unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.  … Yet, we also recognize that the experiencing self should not be ignored. The peak and the ending are not the only things that count. In favoring the moment of intense joy over steady happiness, the remembering self is hardly always wise. … When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.”

Probably the most common evidence of this phenomenon — specifically, of a pleasurable ending transforming suffering to make it, in retrospect, seem to have been negligible and worthwhile — is in women who have more than one childbirth.

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This peak-end rule was an interesting finding for me, and also one of the hardest to wrap my head around as applied to dying. Similarly Gawande’s comments earlier in the book about what makes life (and therefore death) meaningful, which, as he makes clear, are not original or unique to him:

“The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said Royce, ‘solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.'”

I recognise that this is the common idea, that a sense of purpose outside oneself gives life meaning. Yet it’s not a concept I fully understand.

First, “family” doesn’t seem like a higher purpose to me but rather an evolutionary and biological means of promulgating one’s own genetic material (and to a lesser and more unreliable extent, one’s values), and therefore very much focused on the self, and perhaps even a sort of denial of mortality, a belief that one lives on after death, biologically and otherwise, in the lives of others.

I understand better the idea of purpose involving the larger community or society, but I just don’t accept it either as a solution to “the paradox of our ordinary existence,” because I don’t feel there is a paradox to be solved — mortal beings are born, flourish (maybe), and die — or as an action or philosophy that gives life meaning, because living gives life meaning for me. Experiencing love, intimacy, fear, a tree, beauty, revelation, sunlight on a pond, fatigue, hope, compassion, enlightenment, disappointment, wonder, bewilderment, loneliness, the taste of an artichoke, the scent of the ocean, the feel of a cool breeze on a hot day, and so on, and expressing and sharing these experiences in many ways, seems like enough to me.

For me, the experiencing self is the one that seems reliable. It’s the one that lives in the only place we can really live, which is here, and now. The remembering self wants to distort the experience to make a satisfying story about it, complete with cognitive biases, and I distrust these biases and its sense of removal and distance from the experience.

Gawande says that “unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole;” and yet, when I am dead, does it really matter how I view my story? Or anything?

It seems that Gawande is focusing on the weeks, days, hours before the final unconsciousness as the most critical, a kind of assessing of one’s legacy, and perhaps in a book on dying, that’s appropriate, and in fact these studies that Gawande cites are clear that it’s the ending of the story that matters most to most people; and yet in some ways it seems pointless to me to consider the arc and ending of a story whose protagonist, who is also the narrator, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, handing off the telling of their only story (their many stories) to friends and next of kin.

Speaking of handing the story off: It would annoy me (though hopefully I will be beyond annoyance) if, should I die after a long illness, the story of my death is immediately written in a way that would be anathema to me: “She fought a good fight. She lost her battle with X illness.” Or worse. I don’t want my death to be seen as a fight I lost, battling some imaginary enemy, when I see death as a natural progression; and I don’t want the ending, however if unfolds, whether I seem heroic or a whining misery, to colour all that came before. But how my perceived story will be told by others doesn’t concern me much — since, let’s face it, the storytellers will get it wrong, and anyway, they also will die, and soon in geological time.

More to Gawande’s point, how I myself view my story in my final months or moments — its arc or ending, its meaning as a whole — doesn’t seem important, either. For one thing, we all have much the same story to this point — born, learned, tried, failed, succeeded, hoped, feared, acted brave and cowardly, acted selfishly and compassionately, felt and thought things, took risks and played it safe, believed, doubted, had faith, despaired, ate and drank, laughed and cried, loved and hated, practiced violence and peace — and in the final analysis, it ends the same way for everyone, so far as we know. For another, I’d rather put the paltry energy I have in my final days into just experiencing the moments (until the time comes that I’d rather not experience the moments, as Gawande’s father felt in his last hours) rather than trying to craft or tell a story that satisfies me and seems coherent.

We will all be gone in the blink of an eye, from this Earth, at least, and then who knows?, and that thought gives me great comfort when I think about dying. I have no hope in the idea of anyone living on after me or of anyone remembering me; I take comfort in the knowledge that we will all die: our bodies, our ability to experience, our perceptions and memories of our experiences, our art and stories about these experiences. And all that will have been will be what we sense, what we feel, what we think, how we act, in the moments when we sense, feel, think, act.

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“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” ― Vladimir Nabokov

I’m mortal, I will die, I am dying. That happens in time. And while I live, I escape mortality in moments of timelessness … by being absorbed … in that sensation of oneness that can’t help but be an outpouring of gratitude … when brushed by eternity, by “ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

 

 

The Heterotopia of Facebook

I’ve written quite a lot before about heterotopias. Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the margins of or outside of normal cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of most people’s everyday life. They are real places, with a relationship to other real places, but they are absolutely different from other sites. Traditionally, they were places set aside for people undergoing  transitional crises, part of the common stages of life like adolescence, menstruation, pregnancy, dying. Nowadays, we have the military and the honeymoon trip to stand in for these, as well as “heterotopias of deviation,” like prisons and psychiatric hospitals, places where we put people to keep them away from the rest of us.

Heterotopias don’t have to be places of deviation or rites-of-passage, though. Some further examples of heterotopias, as noted by John Doyle and others, might be museums, libraries, the theatre, fairs and festivals, cemeteries, gardens, airports and train stations, tourist towns, a ship. Disney World might be another example.

A heterotopia might be any place that:

  • Juxtaposes and merges incompatible spaces “like ‘private space and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, the space of leisure and that of work’ into spaces of otherness.”
    Michel Foucault, who coined the term in the 1960s, describes “a heterotopia as a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places. … [Heterotopias] relate to other spaces by both representing and at the same time inverting or distorting them.  … A cinema, for example, is a space of otherness amid more ordinary spaces, ‘a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two–dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three–dimensional space.’  In it, the real world and the fiction of the movie are juxtaposed, and the visitors are drawn into the story of the heroes and villains projected on the screen.”
  • Links to “‘slices in time,’ often breaking with traditional time in certain spaces.” Doyle writes: “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year.”
  • Represents ordinary life but also inverts it in some way, either by exposing it as an illusion or by compensating for its imperfections. Heterotopias invite reflection on their relationship to other spaces. They are “‘counter–sites,‘ a kind of effectively-enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” They function by “unfolding between two extremes: between providing an illusion that exposes the real world as still more illusory, and providing a space of perfection to compensate for the flaws of real life. The otherness of a heterotopia, whether it is characterized by illusion or by perfection, calls into question the reality of the ordinary spaces around it. Heterotopias are disturbing.”

So I was pretty excited to come across this article, “The Heterotopia of Facebook,” by Robin Rymarczuk at Philosophy Now (h/t to Peter Johnson at Heterotopian Studies). And then to find a much fuller treatment of the topic by Rymarczuk and Maarten Derksen in First Monday, June 2014, from which I’ve drawn most of my quotes.

In the paper published at First Monday, Rymarczuk and Derksen enumerate the ways in which Facebook is a heterotopia — in fact,  “a heterotopia par excellence,” “able to reflect just about any other site in our culture — the office, the living room, the café, the amusement park, the brothel — at the same time turning them into something completely new.”

You can read the paper at the link. It’s fascinating, especially concerning the Trinidadians’ embrace of Facebook as village-like.

For me, the most interesting aspects are two: Facebook’s distortion of time — conflating past and present, in particular; and its revelation of our carefully constructed identities as illusory:

Tɪᴍᴇ ᴅɪsᴛᴏʀᴛɪᴏɴ: Not only does time seem to fly when we’re using Facebook, and other online resources, but Facebook’s Timeline “collapses past life, present life and afterlife into something very other. … Like a museum, Facebook accumulates time.  … Facebook keeps the past present, but in a way that is much more direct because it is accessible in the same space where the present happens. The past becomes transparent in a way that many people … find unsettling.”

And, “[t]he past lives on in another way as well. Like a cemetery, Facebook houses eternity, but here the dead wander among the living. It’s estimated that by 2015, there will be 50 million social ghosts or profiles without a living owner on Facebook .”

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Last week, a Facebook friend of mine died suddenly. In one sense, she was a virtual friend, because I never met her in person, though I heard her voice on my voicemail when she called me after my mother died, one of very few of any of my friends who did. We also exchanged very tangible Christmas gifts, baked goods, pickles, and cards. But our primary interactive space was on Facebook, in the Timeline, on post comments, and in private messages. We were in touch daily for most of 3 years. I felt a more intimate connection with her than with most of my “in the flesh” friends, mainly because she was completely integrated into my ordinary, daily life, even though our meeting space was often somewhere in the ether between my house in New Hampshire and hers on Long Island, NY.

I miss her the same way I miss my dog, who died in June 2013, which is more than I miss my parents, who have both died. Daily, meaningful connection — virtual or not — is intimate connection.

And seeing her Facebook page now that she has died – still being filled with tributes, (virtual) tears, photos, comments, and her past-but-no-longer-present postings — is a touchstone for me. I hope it remains online always.

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Tʜᴇ Iʟʟᴜsɪᴏɴ ᴏғ Iᴅᴇɴᴛɪᴛʏ: This is the most interesting facet of social media for me, the construction and presentation of an online identity and how it differs from our normal identity construction and presentation. The writers argue that Facebook — often seen as illusory, deceptive, a constructed performance — reveals the illusion of real life identity:

“A heterotopia has a function amidst the other spaces in a society. Because heterotopias are spaces of otherness, outside the normality of everyday life, their function revolves around the distinction between reality and illusion. Foucault gives the example of a brothel, ‘a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.’  In the case of Facebook, organised as it is around personal profiles, status updates and postings, it is the reality of personal identity that is at stake.”

Rymarczuk summaries, in the piece at Philosophy Now:

“Erving Goffman argued in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) [that] the self is always a performance, in which individuals attempt to control the impression that others have of them. This fact is unsettling, because it means that in recognizing the way we present our lives and construct our identities on Facebook to be a performance, we then come to question our personal identity offline too. It is exactly at this juxtaposition of reality and image, where the virtual defines the real, that the heterotopia undermines the notion of ‘real’ reality, through undermining the notion of ‘real’ identity. So on the one hand Facebook opens up a new kind of space where the selection, formulation and articulation of content concerning our identity is more readily available; but on the other hand, this new-found malleability makes us question what our everyday ‘identity’ actually means. … Facebook exposes not the increasing reality of the virtual, but rather that our reality, our identity, has been virtual all along.”

Of course, on some level most of us know that our identity is always constructed, in the tangible world as well as in the virtual world. We know we act one way with one group of people and another way with another group. We always choose which aspects of ourselves to convey, whether consciously, subconsciously, or completely unaware that we’re doing it.  I think somehow knowing that we construct and present our identities for various audiences — which for some reason makes us feel inauthentic, though it is vastly human — lies at the heart of the discomfort both users and non-users of Facebook and other social media share:

“In Foucaultian terms, Facebook is a ‘disrupting’ space which turns our usual world on its head by disturbing its ‘continuity and normality’. You exit the normal world when you log in; but still you are involved in representing a version of normal life. … Whereas Facebook is attractive to many primarily as a social networking tool, it is repulsive to some as a site, a heterotopia.”

New Year’s Meme 2015

(Idea from Notes of an Anesthesioboist .)

1. What did you do in 2014 that you’ve never done before? Became an orphan, when my mother died almost a month ago.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I don’t make them. I’m not that resolved.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? No.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My mother and my uncle.

5. What countries did you visit? Just this one … Jekyll Island GA three times, Savannah GA, Beaufort SC, Myrtle Beach SC, Murrells Inlet, SC, Boothbay Harbor ME, Kennebunk, ME, Portsmouth NH, Richmond VA, Baltimore and Annapolis, MD, Darien, CT, NYC, Boston and Salem, MA, Bath ME, Longwood Gardens in PA.

6. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014? Maybe a French bulldog.

7. What dates from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? None. I have very few dates etched in memory.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Reading a eulogy at my mother’s funeral. Also getting outside at least a few days each week to walk, hike, snowshoe, bird, ramble, garden.

9. What was your biggest failure? Always, a failure to love more, to be compassionate, to be fully aware and appreciative of what I am receiving.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Nothing I can recall.

11. What was the best thing you bought? Vacations.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Journalists around the world in dangerous locations.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? My government’s. Most legislators’. NFL and college football players’ and the commissioner’s.

14. Where did most of your money go? Housing, health insurance, retirement savings, vacations.

15. What did you get really excited about? Trips to Jekyll.

16. What song will always remind you of 2014? Sadly, probably “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. The one I liked best was The Pink & Nate Ruess duet “Just Give Me A Reason.”

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…
-happier or sadder? sadder, I think
-thinner or fatter? a bit fatter
-richer or poorer? richer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Loving. Letting go. Lightening up. Meditation. The usual.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Fretting. Acting out of fear. The usual.

20. How did you spend Christmas? At home with spouse, opening gifts, reading, watching “Fanny and Alexander,” and eating take-out Indian food.

21. Did you fall in love in 2014? Of course. Almost any time I look through the camera lens, I fall in love.

22. What was your favorite TV program? Beachfront Bargain Hunt on HGTV.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? I can’t think of anyone I hate.

24. What was the best book you read? The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq. Also the Regeneration series by Pat Barker, set during the first World War, in England.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery? None. Didn’t listen to much new music this year.

26. What did you want and get? Clean scans for spouse. Time at Jekyll.

27. What did you want and not get? Friends’ bulldogs to live rather than die. World peace. Again.

28. What was your favorite film of this year? “Boyhood.”

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old are you? Hung out at home, early 50s.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Perhaps living closer to the the ocean.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2014? One basic casual outfit for winter, another one for summer, with confusion in fall and spring.

32. What kept you sane? Time alone. Time outside. The camera. The garden. Exercise. Friends. Faith.

33. What celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? I still like Pema Chödrön a lot. The Property Brothers (HGTV) are pretty cute.

34. What political issue stirred you the most? US: gun control reform (please), drone killing, health care reform (more, please). Globally: Scapegoating, witch hunts, and all other forms of mimetic violence. Children being forced to war. The rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment and action in Europe.

35. Whom did you miss? My dog Gretchen. My dad. Friends who go south in the winter.

36. Who was the best new person you met? Maybe Ruth. Enjoyed getting to know Ann, Alison, Mary Anne, Edie and Steven, and Karen better this year, too. Enjoyed spending time with Marie, Robbyn, Brigit, Jack, and Jim after about 10 years or more of not seeing any of them.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014. “In the end what you don’t surrender, /Well, the world just strips away.” — Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

38. Quote a song poem lyric that sums up your year:

You have your eye on a small /elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth / strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

— Eamon Grennan

2014 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2014 stats

average read per month: 4.25 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (March and Sept)
number read in best month: 9 (July)

percentage by male authors: 48% (25)
percentage by female authors: 52% (27)

fiction as percentage of total: 90% ( books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 66% ( of books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 10% ( books)

percentage of total liked: 64% (33 books)
percentage of total so-so: 25% (13 books)
percentage of total disliked: 11% (6 books)

Notes:

The limiting factor in my reading again this year was availability of books I wanted to read. I feel like I spent a lot of time not reading much of anything, waiting for books to come into the library.

As usual, most of my non-fiction reading is online these days, in the form of essays and articles.

My favourite books of the year were The Map and the Territory (2013) by Michel Houellebecq, The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt, the Regeneration series by Pat Barker, and The Caller (2009) by Karin Fossum.  I read more non-crime-fiction fiction this year than in most years, thanks to being in three fiction bookgroups.

Books Read 2014

Once again (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Dark Mirror (2009) by Barry Maitland, in the Kolla-Brock series set in and near London. When PhD student Marion Summers has a seizure in the London Library and dies soon after, everyone is surprised to learn that she was poisoned with arsenic. But how, and why, and by whom? Kathy is the primary investigator in this case, with Brock as her sidekick. Maitland’s crime novels always include information about other topics (stamp collecting, Karl Marx, architecture, Islamists, genetic technology, alternative medicine, the Brixton riots, modern art, etc.; in this one it’s Dante Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. Setting varies in London from St. James Square to Rosslyn Court to Ealing to Notting Hill, with a quick trip to Prague.

Just One Evil Act (2013) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers series. A long book (719 pp) that felt longer because of Havers’ dissembling actions throughout. Plot: Her close friend and neighbour Azhar’s 9-year-old daughter Hadiyyah is kidnapped by her mother, Angelina, and taken to Italy, and from that unfolds more kidnapping, deception, tabloid journalism, family hatred, and death. Set in London and Lucca, Tuscany, with the chief inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco playing an important role in the story. One thing that’s obvious in this book is that Lynley’s and Havers’ ideas of what constitutes helping a friend in trouble differ. Meanwhile, Havers is being investigated unofficially by a coworker who hates her, and Lynley is falling in love with the large animal vet (who plays roller derby) whom he met in Cornwall.

Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson: Fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an older congregationalist pastor in small town Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, dying of a heart condition and intent on leaving some words about his life to his 7-year-old son. Poetic. I  liked the way that he kept repeating scenes, re-remembering them, like seeing his wife for the first time in church. Loved the thoughts on baptism in particular, and the compassionate, humane sensibility of the book.

More Bitter Than Death (2010/2013) by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff: Second in the psychotherapist Siri Bergmann series. Siri and Aina start a self-help group for a few abused women, one of whom has an ex-boyfriend arrested for a brutal murder, which was witnessed by the victim’s 5-year-old daughter. At the same time, Siri is counseling a married couple and having her own issues with her police boyfriend Markus. Good.

The Golden Compass (1995) by Philip Pullman, a fantasy novel of 11-year-old Lyra, an apparently orphaned and fierce, wild, and intuitive little girl who lives in a theological college and is cared for by the staff there. Soon, after hearing her uncle’s presentation to some at the college about the Aurora Borealis and “dust,” she is caught up in an adventure that takes her to the northmost parts of the Earth. Not really my kind of story but I like the idea of the daemons that all humans in her world have, an external animal manifestation of their spirits.

February

The Dinner (2009/2012) by Herman Koch, transl. from Dutch. A dark book about two couples whose sons have been involved in a heinous, gratuitous crime. The two couples come together over an expensive, pretentious dinner to talk about what to do. The narrator, Paul, is the father of one son, Michel, and quite an anithero, as his his wife, Claire. This is a book about scapegoating and how it can be justified by considering other people as “not entirely innocent,” “inhuman,” “subintelligent,” “a piece of trash,” “not civilized like we are.”

The Orphan Choir (2013) by Sophie Hannah. A very creepy novel about a mother,  Louise,  harassed by her neighbour’s loud music in the middle of the night, and who then begins to hear a boys’ choir singing; not coincidentally, her 7-year-old son is in a boys’ choir that requires he live away from home except for holidays. Louise thinks she has found some relief when she is drawn to buy a second home in Swallowfield, an upscale rural housing community an hour or two away. Set in Cambridge, England, and outside it.

The Map and the Territory (2013) by Michel Houellebecq: An amusing, layered postmodern novel about the life of Jed Martin, a contemporary French artist living in Paris, and about his few long- term relationships  — his father, his gallerist, his publicist — and his few other involvements, mainly with woman (particularly beautiful Michelin staffer Olga)  — and the equally friendless author Michel Houellebecq, to whom he is attracted as a friend. The themes of the book are multiple: labour and work (particularly William Morris’s ideas on design and craft, the architecture and organisation of factories and work buildings in general, the dignity and the identity of work); machines (notably cars and boilers); modernity (including celebrity as a concept, air travel and the heterotopias of airports and shopping areas, the ubiquity of information); sex (focus on prostitutes) and death (murder, euthanasia, suicide, funeral rites); and so on. I really enjoyed the book and read most of it in a day.

March

The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt. Almost 800-page novel, spanning almost 15 years, primarily set in New York City, with significant time in Las Vegas and Amsterdam as well.  Theo Decker is visiting a museum with his mother, to get out of the rain one morning, when the unthinkable happens, leaving him essentially a traumatised, desperate, guilt-ridden, 13-year-old orphan. I can’t describe the plot any better than Theo does, near the end: “And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.” Extremely well-written, complex, perhaps a little too narrative towards the end but in beautiful way. (Interestingly, heterotopias figure largely in this book, too: museums, city parks, airports, even most of Las Vegas … places people pass through.)

A Town Like Alice (1950) by Nevil Shute. A young English woman is among other women and children taken prisoner by the Japanese in Malaysia in WWII, and is forced to walk for six months essentially before settling down to grow rice in a small town for 3 years. A few years after her release, she inherits some money from an uncle she didn’t know and decides to use some to give back to the town that allowed the women to stay during the war. She also decides, on receiving some new information there, to find a man she met during the war, who was kind to her and the other women. At the same time, he is trying to find her. The last part of the book takes place in the outback of Australia. The story is told by her 70-year-old estate trustee, who loves and admires her.  The problem with this book is that it’s about 3 moral, conscientious, responsible, hard-working people who act with the best motives in all cases  and who get excellent results. There is no moral ambiguity at all, which makes it predictable and boring. The story is also more told than shown, so that even the dramatic circumstances comes across as rather flat.

April

Ripper (2013) by Isabel Allende: I was surprised how below-average a crime novel this was. Set in modern day San Francisco, it has an OK plot (though one figures out whodunit long before the end). But the characters, their relationships, and the dialogue read like a flailing young adult novel. The main characters are 16-year-old Amanda Jackson, the daughter of San Francisco’s deputy homicide chief, and her mother, Indiana, a gullible, curvy blonde holistic healer that every man desires. Other characters are an ex-NAVY Seal and his war-damaged Belgian Malinois , a well-born but no-longer-rich jealous playboy, an astrologer, a transvestite waiter, a biddable grandfather who is happy playing his granddaughter’s henchman, several misfit kids from around the world, and … you get the picture. Still, it could have worked, had the dialogue been less awkward and the plot not strain incredulity so much.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012) by Peter Bane: Read for discussion group, meeting over several months. I found this book less helpful than many others for learning about and applying permaculture principles and practices. Bane is at once didactic (“you should” appears often) and oddly poetic and idealistic at times, once describing the garden as a lover that you take into your body and learn its signs of arousal, and suggesting that suburbanites (and others) embrace shared living, community labour and mealtimes, a farm stand in one’s front yard, and that we ask the neighbors not to spray biocides on their property (as this request is in line with best practices and “not controversial”). A few chapters are overtly political: sections on genetically modified crops, Monsanto, Big Pharma, the ethics of meat-eating, etc..  There is quite a lot of detail on plant propagation and grafting, seed starting and saving,  how to plant a tree, and the “garden farming pattern language” (of which there are 68 elements), which still mystifies me. I was also very confused by Chapter 11, Soil, which went into the Oxygen-Ethylene Cycle of aerobic and anaerobic plant nutrients in far too much depth. The diagrams and photos, almost all black and white, are unappealing. On the other hand, the four case studies included are detailed, personal, interesting and offer the only colour photos in the book; setting include the Colorado Rockies, Ontario, Harrisonburg VA, and Bloomington IN (his garden farm). His section on animals for the garden farm will be useful to someone considering this, and Chapter 4, Permaculture Principles, is a good overview. I particularly felt that the Living with Wildlife and Trees and Shrubs chapters were the most interesting. I skimmed the last 4 or 5 chapters, as they seemed to repeat what had already been said.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan: Read for a bookgroup and led to a great discussion of our own experiences as women coming of age in the U.S. between 1950 and the late 1980 or so. But the book itself was repetitive, over-the-top in some areas (fear of homosexuals, comparison for WWII concentration camps, etc.), not tightly edited, and a bit boring. Chapters on advertising, gender-based education, housewifery, Freud, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Margaret Mead (whom she really does not like), functionalism (the job of women was to adjust to the status quo so they would be happier), mothers who love too much and absorb their children’s personalities, etc. It felt all over the place to me. And in the end, I felt sort of cheated, as the only spheres Friedan presents as legitimate are wife and mother (she actually says “marriage and motherhood are an essential part of life”), house, and professional, serious career. If you’re a woman with no interest in any of these things, where does that leave you? She also has a strong preference for the future and potential, possibility, growth, and a strong dislike of the present moment, where, she says, schizophrenics reside. I found it all off-putting, though I appreciated learning some of the history of the women’s movement and of the culture in general.

May

Children of the Revolution (2014) by Peter Robinson in the DCI Alan Banks series. An eccentric former college professor is found dead on an abandoned railway line, with £5000 in his pocket. Banks, Annie, Winsome and Gerry Masterson investigate not only his former college colleagues and students but also a woman he went to school with 40 years before, now Lady Chalmers. As usual, a selection of Van Morrison, jazz and classical artists, and other pop music bands and singers are mentioned, as are various alcoholic beverages, in this police procedural cum cozy. The plot of this episode is only so-so.

Stormy Weather (1995) by Carl Hiassen: Another insane crime novel, sort of, set in southern Florida (Miami and the Keys) entirely during a hurricane. A couple on their honeymoon, a couple pulling an insurance scam. some corrupted housing inspectors, heir to an exotic animal farm, and the Skink all converge. A bit of one paragraph gives a flavour: “Max Lamb was unnerved by the wall of grinning skulls, but said nothing as he made his way down the hall to the shower. Augustine got on the telephone to sort out what had happened with his dead uncle’s Cape buffalo. Bonnie fixed a pot of coffee and took it to the guest room, where the governor was recovering from the animal dart.” Lots of violence and lots of fun.

Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (2013) by Howard Mansfield: Nonfiction meditations of a theme, which is how do we dwell — and dwell well — in the modern world when we know that our homes can be destroyed in an instant by bombs or natural disaster? The book is divided into 3 sections: the first is about houses, homes, clutter, what makes a house a home; the second is about Word War II and the Vietnam War and the policy of “dehousing;” and the third is about “sheds,” of which all new England homes and buildings are a variation, according to the New Hampshire author.  Read it for a bookgroup, and most of the members found it disjointed, fragmented, disappointing after an interesting start; I liked it precisely for this, the loose connection of the parts of the book to the whole.

Where the Monsters Dwell (2011/2014) by Jørgen Brekke: Set mainly in modern day Trondheim, Norway, and a bit in Richmond, VA, this gristly crime novel introduces Trondheim police inspector Odd Singsaker (who, like Finnish police detective Kari Vaara in the series by James Thompson, has recently undergone surgery for a brain tumour) and Richmond homicide detective Felicia Stone; he remembers too little and she too much. They are investigating several murders that involve skin-flaying and beheading, and harken back to the 16th century, that seem related. I’d give it a B-. The writing and characters are OK but something is missing.

June

The Lowland (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri. Starts with two brothers, 15 months apart in age — Udayan impulsive, Subhash dutiful — living in Calcutta in the 1960s, during a time of political upheaval. Soon, though, their own choices and consequent events separate them, and for most of the story we follow Sudhash, a scientist living in Rhode Island. This is a book about time, memory, how events in life line up to create a story, how the echo of a single action can reverberate for decades, for a lifetime, and over generations, and most of all, how it feels to live inside the yesterdays of our lives. I liked it more than I thought I would. Well-written, poetic in places.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (2013) by Ben Falk. An especially important book for New England homesteaders, gardeners, and small-scale farmers. Falk’s Whole Systems Research Farm above the Mad River in central Vermont has a climate and topography similar to what many of us in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and parts of Massachusetts and New York experience. Falk goes into some depth concerning rice-growing, pond- and swale-making and earthworks in general, fertility harvesting (urine and humanure, cover cropping, scything, fungi), perennial crops, animals such as ducks and chickens, maintaining and harvesting a firewood crop, and resilient systems for emergencies. Many enlightening diagrams, appendices and photos. Recommended for permaculturists.

Vertigo 42 (2014) by Martha Grimes, in the Richard Jury series, with Sergeant Wiggins and Melrose Plant. A friend of a friend, Tom Williamson, believes his wife’s death from a fall seventeen years ago at their Devon country house was not an accident, and he asks Jury to investigate. In the course of his investigation, a 22-year-old murder is solved, and two more people are murdered, one from another fall. Very readable but not enough Melrose Plant for my taste, and the plot not as tight-feeling somehow as others; the ending was a bit of a let-down. The plot of the Hitchcock movie Vertigo is invoked several times.

Cockroaches (1998, English transl. 2014) by Jo Nesbo, second in the Harry Hole series, this one set entirely in Thailand. Took a long time for this to be translated to English, so it’s been published far out of order in the series. Harry is sent to cover up or screw up, or both, a murder investigation of a Norwegian ambassador found murdered in a brothel. It’s gruesome and harrowing, not my favourite of the series.

Skinny Dip (2004) by Carl Hiassen. One of the funniest of his books, featuring Mick Stranahan, set in Biscayne Bay, Miami, the Everglades. Chaz Perrone, a hapless “marine scientist” on the take, throw his wife, a former champion diver, overboard on an anniversary cruise, and from there his life takes a very bad turn. Hilarious.

July

Star Island (2010) by Carl Hiassen, featuring weed-whacking bodyguard Chemo and with an appearance by Skink. Bang Abbott is a celebrity paparazzo who tangles himself up with both Cherry Pie — celebrity singer and drug addict — and her much smarter and more grounded double, Ann DeLusia. Not one of his best but still a fun romp.

Bad Monkey (2013) by Carl Hiassen, set in Miami and the Bahamas. Two similar stories intersect: demoted police officer, now restaurant health inspector, Andrew Yancy bemoans and works to sabotage the oversized McMansion going up on the lot next to his, while in the Bahamas, fisherman (and bad money owner) Neville Stafford’s home has been sold out from under him by his sister to an American Medicaid fraudster cum developer, whose arm has turned up in the waters near Key West.  Bony sex-crazed voodoo practitioner Dragon Queen, hulking bodyguard Egg, obsessed ex-girlfriend and FBI fugitive Bonnie, and of course the bad monkey, Driggs, round out the cast of this amusing crime novel.

Basket Case (2002) by Carl Hiassen, set in south Florida and featuring obituary writer Jack Tagger, a 46-year-old man obsessed with dying young. He’s also a former rocker, so recognises the name James Bradley Stomarti (aka Jimmy Stoma, lead man of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies) in a police report. After interviewing Stoma’s wife, pop singer Cleo Rio, about his “diving accident”  in the Bahamas, and learning that the “autopsy” didn’t include any dissection of the body, he begins to have suspicions about the accidental nature of the death. Stoma’s sister, Janet, has similar concerns. Rounding out the cast are Jack’s editor, Emma; the newspaper’s aged owner and its editor; his best friend, sports writer Juan Rodriguez; and Jack’s former girlfriend’s daughter, Carla.  Some interesting allusions noted at Wikipedia.

Lucky You (1997) by Carl Hiassen. Imparts Hiassen’s usual environmental values, employing his usual zany cast of characters, while skewering racism and the white supremacy mindset. Set in fictional Grange, Florida (apparently based on the real town of Cassadaga), rampant with religious miracles like road-stain Jesus and a crying plastic Madonna statue, this very funny novel follows African-American vet assistant JoLayne Lucks, who has just won half of a $28 million lottery prize, with which she wants to buy a piece of wild land to preserve; journalist Tom Krome, sent there to interview her; white supremacist thugs Bode Gazzer and Chub — winners of the other half of the lottery prize — who beat up JoLayne and steal her ticket too (they are soon joined by Shiner, a young convenience store clerk enchanted with the ideas of power, guns, babes, etc.); Amber, a Hooters waitress in tiny orange shorts, whom all the rednecks fall for; Tom’s almost-ex-wife Mary Andrea, his married girlfriend Katie and her vengeful judge husband, and his burned-out editor at the paper, Sinclair; JoLayne’s ATF buddy and admirer, Moffitt; and some of the religious miracle workers.

Bones of the Lost (2013) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan series. Thankfully, almost no Brennan-Ryan interaction in this one, set mostly in the Charlotte, NC area, and also near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Her main partner is homicide police detective Skinny Slidell. Tempe is asked to look at a likely hit-and-run victim, a teenaged girl, and quickly realises that her death was no accident. A check for Customs and Immigration of some old dog bones and a favour for her almost-ex, Pete, requiring her to analyze gun shot wounds to local nationals by a Marine in Afghanistan, all come together into one single, somewhat complex, coincidental and unbelievable plot. Fast reading but not her best (not her worst, either).

Black Lies, Red Blood (2014) by Kjell Eriksson, 5th in the Ann Lindell series set in Uppsala, Sweden. When Ann’s new boyfriend, journalist Anders Brant, takes off after a homeless man is found murdered, Ann fears the worst and busies herself with a cold case, that of a teenage girl who disappeared on her 16th birthday. Much more of Ann’s personal life (and lots of sex) in this one than in the others. There is a certain measured and philosophical way of speaking that most of the characters have that appeals to me in this series.

The Photograph (2003) by Penelope Lively, a novel for a book group. Quite a while after his wife, Kath, dies, Glyn comes upon a photograph that implicates her with another man, her sister Elaine’s husband Nick. Glyn’s obsession with learning more — about her involvement with Nick, about her possible involvement with other men, about Kath’s life, which he now realises he was quite unaware of — changes not only his own view of Kath but that of Elaine, Nick, their daughter Polly, and their friend and one-time business partner Oliver, who took the photo. None of the characters is likable; in fact, except Polly, all seem evasive, defensive, self-centered, manoeuvring, and ready to run at the slightest emotional provocation. Kath, who is the focus of everyone’s thoughts, in the end seems to have hardly been there at all.

The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) by Colin Cotterill, first in the Dr. Siri series, read for a bookgroup. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a reluctant coroner in the newly formed communist republic of Laos in 1976. He’s also a reluctant comrade to whom dead spirits appear with clues to their demise. In this novel, he investigates the suspicious death at a lady’s lunch of Senior Comrade Kham’s wife as well as the obvious murders of some Vietnamese. The book is wryly amusing, the plot so-so, and the insight into Indochina (particularly the politics, culture, and inter-relationships of the Laos, Thais, Hmongs, and Vietnamese) in this time period worthwhile.

A Dark & Twisted Tide (2014) by Sharon (SJ) Bolton, in the Lacey Flint series. Bolton’s books are imbued with a sense of place and this one doesn’t disappoint on that score, set primarily in southeast London on the Thames River near Deptford Creek. Lacey is not only living on a small riverboat but is working with the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit; she is out for a swim on the Thames (not recommended) when she finds the deteriorated body of a young woman wrapped in linen floating in the water, the first of several. The book’s plotting is fairly complex, with chapters about Lacey, her former boss Dana Tulloch, the killer (“the swimmer”), and each of the woman who dies in the river, as well as interactions between Lacey and would-be boyfriend Mark Joesbury (on an undercover mission) and with her new friends, Alex and Thessa, who live on Deptford Creek. The book is set so firmly on and in the water that I felt a bit soggy when I finished it. Quite good.

August

In Paradise (2014) by Peter Matthiessen. A novel (which reads like very prosaic non-fiction) set in the 1990s at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz (in Poland). American academic and poet Clements Olin travels here to learn about his past, and meets others who are there for their own reasons: nuns, priests, a female academic from Israel, Poles, Norwegians, Germans, and a “brutish loudmouth named Earwig.” The Guardian review captures it well: “Feelings and opinions about the Holocaust turn out to be raw and unpredictable; everyone responds to the immediacy of the slaughter in ways they had not expected, and it becomes evident that, whatever the purpose of the retreat, reconciliation is not a likely outcome. The retreat does not just open them up; it dangles them over an abyss of evil that most cannot understand or process.”  What’s not even mentioned in the Guardian review is how much of the book is taken up with middle-aged Olin’s drooling over a young nun, which seemed silly and detracted from the book for me. The novel felt plodding; I expected a lot more. (Read for bookgroup.)

Sick Puppy (2000) by Carl Hiaasen. One of my favourites and a re-read. Amoral lobbyist Palmer Stoat comes to the attention of independently wealthy environmentalist Twilly Spree when he throws litter out his car window, and from that moment the die is cast. After a few of Spree’s pranks have no deterring effect on the heedless Stoat, Spree kidnaps his black labrador dog and pretty soon Stoat’s wife, Desi, comes along, too. Meanwhile the lobbying machinations of corrupt Florida governor Dick Artemus, one of his major contributors developer Robert Clapley (who has a Barbie fetish), Florida representative Willie Vasquez-Washington, and Stoat continue unabated, with Artemus eventually making the mistake of blackmailing ex-governor Clinton Tyree (Skink, Captain) into capturing Spree. The major action of the book begins and ends with a private canned hunt, where Stoat et al. go to shoot “wild” game animals trucked in from circuses, zoos, etc., for the purpose.

Regeneration (1992) by Pat Barker, first in the Regeneration trilogy about World War I.  Excellent. So many things to think about after reading this novel about a military psychiatrist/anthropologist, Williams Rivers, and the patients he’s treating for shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, including Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated soldier (and poet) who has written a published declaration disavowing the war, and Wilfred Owens, another poet and soldier.  Craiglockhart, Rivers, Sassoon, and Owens are all real people and their time at the hospital is the basis for the book.

The Eye in the Door (1993) by Pat Barker, the second in the Regeneration series. Focuses mostly on Lt. Billy Prior, though Rivers and to a lesser extent Sassoon are also in the book, as is Charles Manning, a married but bisexual military officer also under Rivers’ care. Homosexuality and pacifism are both targeted by the government and the public as social sins that must be dealt with by prosecution, persecution, imprisonment, and oppression. Prior, working for the Ministry of Munitions, investigates a childhood friend, Beattie, a pacifist in prison for plotting to kill Lloyd George. Eventually, as Prior represses parts of himself and events that have happened to him, his personality splits. Interesting but not quite as satisfying as the first book, in my opinion.

Death at the Château Bremont (2011) by Mary Lou Longworth, the first in the Verlaque and Bonnet mystery series. So-so novel set in Aix-en-Provence involving the death of Étienne de Bremont, who falls from a window. Later, elements of the Russian mafia and their trade in supermodels/prostitutes come into play, and throughout runs the story of Antoine Verlaque (the chief magistrate – i.e. detective — in Aix) and his former girlfriend, law professor Marine Bonnet, as well as ample commentary on food, wine, cigars, and the French countryside and customs. I enjoyed that last bit but not the romance, and the plot was thin. I actually don’t know, after finishing the book, who killed one of the victims, but I don’t really care. I may read another for the pleasant French immersion.

September

The Ghost Road (1995) by Pat Barker, the third in the Regeneration trilogy, set in Britain and France in WWI. This one focuses more than the others on actual battle, with Prior and Owen back in the war, and on Rivers’ experiences (remembered in his dreamy flu-induced state) some years ago with a tribe of thwarted headhunters on Eddystone Island in the South Seas. Some themes that emerge are healing of soul and body, sacrifice and community, societal taboos, the seeming need for war and killing of others to maintain the health of a society.

Terminal City (2014) by Linda Fairstein, in the Alex Cooper series, this one set entirely in New York City, almost entirely at Grand Central Station/Terminal. Disappointing read. Serious fans of New York City history, train history, and Grand Central Station history will find a lot of information here, but the crime novel aspect falls short and gets muddied both by the didactic history lessons and by discussion of international terrorism. The relationships among Alex, Mike, Mercer and the more ancillary characters are given less attention in this book than usual, as well.

October

To Dwell in Darkness (2014) by Deborah Crombie, in the Kincaid/James series. Kincaid has been transferred (as punishment, it seems) to the Camden borough of London and is investigating a fatal bombing in the St. Pancras International Station mall, in which a small group of ragtag Crossrail protestors is involved. Duncan calls on the help of both Melody and Doug (neither of whom works for him now) to help him identify the bomber/victim. I guessed the killer more than 100 pp before the end of the book but the plot wasn’t bad. The rest of the book focuses on the ordinary life-with-children-and-pets of Gemma (working on her own case, a rape and murder, with Melody … and yet home with the kids most of the time?) and Duncan, which gets a bit tiresome.

The Long Way Home (2014) by Louise Penny, an Inspector Gamache novel. Clara Morris is worried when her estranged husband, Peter, hasn’t returned after a year, as promised, and asks Gamache — now retired and living in Three Pines with his wife and dog — to help her find him. His son-in-law and second-in-command at the Sûreté, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Clara’s best friend, Myrna Landers, come along too, as they trace Peter’s steps finally back to Canada. As all in the series, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships, the reality of deep psychic wounds and how they heal or don’t, and the power of love. Many who like the series didn’t like this book; I felt that while there is not as much focused action — and it’s not a crime novel per se — there is just as much mystery, humanity, and complexity of motivation as in her other books.

Murder in the Rue Dumas (2012) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence and in the Umbria region of Italy. When theology department doyen (dean) and art collector Georges Moutte is murdered after announcing at a party that he won’t retire as planned, suspicion focuses on the three professors hoping for his position (and the spacious house-for-life that goes with it) as well as on students vying for the prestigious Dumas Award, and soon, the net widens to include art collectors and sellers. The usual discussion of food, wine, and Verlaque’s and Bonnet’s relationship. The plot is so-so, as in the first book, with a strange bit in the middle introducing a character (Marcel Dubly) who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this book. Despite investigations by Verlaque and others in the police force, these are more cozy than police procedural.

Euphoria (2014) by Lily King, a sort of historical fiction novel about four anthropologists: Margaret Mead (called Nell in the book), her second husband, Reo Fortune (Fen), and her third husband, Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson), as well as her close friend, mentor, and probable lover, Ruth Benedict (Helen Benjamin). Not only are the names changed, but the outcome of the story is drastically altered as well. The book focuses on a few months in New Guinea, during the intersection of Nell’s, Fen’s, and Bankson’s fevered time together among the Tam (the Tam were the Tchambuli/Chambri) and the Kiona (the Kiona were the Baining tribe). The book felt a bit light-weight and silly, though elements of the plot were intriguing, like their development of The Grid (based on Mead’s and Bateson’s theory of squares, developed at this time), a way of classifying all people as South/North/East/West types, later used by the Nazis; the descriptions of how Nell interacted with the native people (vs. the way the men did); and Bankson’s thoughts on the subjectivity of the observer.

Death in the Vines (2013) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, set in Aix-en-Provence, in the L’Aubrac region, and near Narbonne. The plot, concerning two younger women who are raped (and die) and an older woman who is murdered, holds together better than in the previous two books. There was a glaring typo on page 126, though, with the name “Sophie” (who is not a character in the book) instead of “Marine.” Much of the plot involves vineyards and wineries, and of course enjoyment and discussion of food (including gargouillou at Michel Bras) is central as always.

November

Number9Dream (2001) by David Mitchell. Wikipedia says it’s “the search of 19-year-old Eiji Miyake for his father, whom he has never met. Told in the first person by Eiji, it is a coming of age/perception story that breaks convention by juxtaposing Eiji Miyake’s actual journey toward identity and understanding with his imaginative journey.” That gives you some idea, but it’s actually more complex than that. Besides the coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about grief and coming to terms with loss. There are elements of a gristly crime novel here, a nerdy romance, a post-modern fable, a family saga. The linear plot line is enhanced by a fantastic set of stories about a goat, a hen and a hominid; letters; journals of a Japanese submariner from World War II; a movie about a man who insists he is god; and a boatload of dreams. Characters include a pothead pizza delivery guy who does magic tricks, a witch, a video store owner, a classical piano player, several sadistic yazuka underworld figures, a wealthy playboy law student, a computer hacker, a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, Eiji’s daredevil sister Anju, and the city of Tokyo itself. Satisfying.

The Soul Catcher (2002) by Alex Kava in the FBI agent Maggie O’Dell series. I really like this series, whose books are hard to find locally. In this one, Maggie and her partner Tully are assigned to investigate the strangulation of a US Senator’s daughter near the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, as well as the mass suicide of several young men who are part of the Rev. Joseph Everett’s religious sect — of which Maggie’s estranged mother is also a member.

Nature Girl (2006) by Carl Hiaasen, another “caper drama satire” (as Wikipedia terms it) set in Florida. The Wikipedia plot summary nails it: “Honey Santana becomes irritated by telemarketers and invites … one to a phony real estate promotion – which she describes as an eco-tour – in the Ten Thousand Islands in order to teach him a lesson.” He arrives with his mistress, and they, Honey’s perverted ex-employer stalker, Honey’s son and her ex-husband, and “a young half-Seminole man named Sammy Tigertail and his very willing captive, Gillian, a sex-obsessed, warmhearted Florida State coed” all end up on one very small island. Not one of my favourites; really too over-the-top, even for Hiaasen, in terms of sex, drama, and character eccentricities.

Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline: (Re-read for another bookgroup.) YA or adult novel about two orphans: Vivian, one who was on the National Orphan Train in 1929, from New York to Minnesota (and her life in Minnesota and later, as an aged woman, in Spruce Harbor, Maine), and Molly, a 17-year-old living in Spruce Harbor. The book is simple in plot and simply written, another gentle story told with humanity.

Flesh and Blood (2014) by Patricia Cornwell, 22nd in the Scarpetta series. A sniper seems to be efficiently taking out unrelated victims in New Jersey and Massachusetts, a Twitter message and odd items left in their yard imply a threat to Kay and her family,  and Lucy and Benton seem to be keeping secrets from Kay. (AND, the word “and” is used far too much in the dialogue, as always in this series.) This episode focuses more on Lucy and Benton and less on Marino and others in Kay’s life; it will help to have read some previous books in this series to understand the complexity of the plot twists. Kay notes (this book is first-person Kay again) several times that she has become more of an activist medical examiner, more angry with the violence in the world. Book ends in Florida with a cliffhanger.

December

An Officer and A Spy (2013) by Robert Harris. Novel about the Dreyfus Affair, in which Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy in turn-of the-19th-century France. The novel is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, recently appointed chief of the head of the statistical division (counter-espionage) for the army, and is well-written, detailed, and just a bit boring. Still, I was glad to know more about this important event in history, when prejudices and other foibles of human nature (like loathing of being proved wrong and a desire to go along to get along) set and kept in motion grave injustices.

The Holistic Orchard: Trees, Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2011) by Michael Phillips. I can cut to the chase and tell you to spray 100% pure neem oil on all your fruits and you’ve just learned half of what’s in the book. The rest is trying to convince us to orchard in a way that allows the shrubs, thickets and trees to ward off disease and insect damage by maintaining a healthy, natural plant ecosystem, plus there’s information on specific diseases and pests of each fruit, the best varieties of fruits to plant (especially if you live in northern New England, as Phillips does), and how and when to prune each of them. Permaculture principles are mentioned and are inherent in his suggestions.

Murder on the Île Sordou (2014) by M.L. Longworth, in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series. This one is set on the fictional island of Sourdou, 15 miles fro Marseille, at the opening of a new grand hotel. Guests besides Verlaque and Bonnet and Marine’s friend Sylvie include an American couple, a fading film star and his wife and stepson, a poet, and a Parisian couple. The murder doesn’t occur until at least halfway into the book; the focus as usual, maybe more than usual, is on food and drink and being French. The series is pleasant enough.

The Caller (2009) by Karin Fossum, 10th in the Inspector Sejer series, set in a small town in Norway, looks at the motivations for and consequences of a teen’s sinister pranks, wrought on strangers to cause havoc and insecurity. Some may find the book too emotionally wrenching (especially those who abhor harm to animals and children) but it’s also a serious and calm investigation of parenting, the complexity of human motivations, and diversity of behaviours in within one individual.

Proust Questionnaire updated

I think the last time I thought about this was in 2009; five years later, both parents and my dog having died in the meantime, seems a good place to update.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Still: walking on the beach at Jekyll Island, and photographing outdoors. Also: Expecting nothing other than that the rug will be pulled out.

2. What is your greatest fear?
Pretty much the same as five years ago: Violent death for me, my dog, other loved ones. Having the choice of killing someone else or being killed.  Rape. Dental work.

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. These lead to most violent actions.

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Contempt. Flattery. Manipulation. Sureness of one’s rightness. Inability to move beyond the past. Victimhood.

5. Which living person do you most admire?
No one in particular comes to mind. Someone with balance, grace, who listens fully and without expectation. Someone without preconceptions even about that with which they are most familiar. Someone with clarity of heart and mind.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?
The same as five years ago: Not having to work for money.

7. What is your current state of mind?
Calm, open.

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Still: Being busy, efficient, productive.

9. On what occasion do you lie?
To spare feelings, to avoid consequences.

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Still: My stomach, since I was a child.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
Still: No one. There are behaviours and attitudes I wish were extinct: anything deriving from groupthink and mob behaviour, animal cruelty and neglect, the urge to revenge, appropriated grief, manufactured drama.

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Knows how to fix things. Resourceful. Resilient.  Makes me laugh. Lacks bitterness. Gentle.

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Listens well. Makes me laugh. Gentle. Affectionate.

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I complain too much, using various words and phrases.

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The natural world, ocean, beach, sun, sky. …”Start seeing everything as God, / But keep it a secret.” – Hafiz

16. When and where were you happiest?
One instance: With two friends (c. 2005) having dinner and talking, so simpatico, one long evening in Maine.

17. Which talent would you most like to have?
The talent to put people at their ease, to ease suffering and anxiety.

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be more loving. I would be able to fly. I would be able to understand all animal languages, including human ones. I would be able to narrow selections down to “one thing” instead of a handful (not).

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
This: “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” — Brenda Ueland

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Still: I hope this won’t happen, but if it does, maybe a grain of sand.

21. Where would you most like to live?
Near the beach and ocean. In a small house that’s just big enough.

22. What is your most treasured possession?
Health, true friends.

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
To witness an animal harmed. To see one’s own violence (rivalry, mimesis, envy, hatred, desire) in someone else without recognising it.

24. What is your favorite occupation?
Looking and recording.

25. What is your most marked characteristic?
Curiosity.

26. What do you most value in your friends?
Casual affection, not easily offended or hurt, forgiveness, attentiveness, benign and steadfast interest in others, few complaints, silliness. Wholeheartedness. Insight.

27. Who are your favorite writers?
Mostly poets. “When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.” — Andrei Tarkovsky

28. Who is your hero of fiction?
Maybe (anti-hero) Greg House from the TV show House MD. Or maybe his friend James Wilson.

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I don’t know much about historical figures. Probably a writer or poet, maybe Virginia Woolf.

30. Who are your heroes in real life?
Heroes don’t appeal to me.

31. What are your favorite names?
Sallie, Lucy, Zoe, Gemma, Pippa.

32. What is it that you most dislike?
Driving in snow and ice. Talking on the phone. Finding hidden meat in restaurant fish or vegetable dishes.

33. What is your greatest regret?
Not buying spouse’s parents’ condo on Jekyll Island when we could have.

34. How would you like to die?
Still: Painlessly, happily, with a feeling of peace and well-being. Or: “I’d rather die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers.”

35. What is your motto?
“I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.” — from “Detail,” by Eamon Grennan

The Nature of Dreams, or, Dreams about Nature

My dreams lately have been beyond vivid (which is their usual style). They have been vivid, persistent, disturbing (unusual for me), and nature-focused.

Last week, right after my mother died (I think … it’s possible it was right before) I dreamed I had mushrooms growing out of my body. I noticed raised patches on my legs first, like small skin lesions, then on my torso, and as I discovered them, they grew. Then I noticed a very large one, without the stem, above my right breast. They were pretty at first but also disturbing, especially the speed with which they spread. I couldn’t understand how it happened so fast, and I was wondering how to remove them without damaging my skin.

underside of Amanita flavoconia mushroom (Kezar Lake, Aug 2014)
underside of Amanita flavoconia mushroom (Kezar Lake, Aug 2014)

Of course, I googled it. Dreaming of fungi or mushrooms growing from the body has many meanings, surprisingly, since it seems like such a specific symbol:

  • “When there is a fungus on the skin or protruding from it, there is emotional distress or physical distress, or your body is literally trying to fight off an infection.”
  • “To see fungus in your dream represents negative emotions that are expanding and growing in your unconscious. You need to find a productive way to express them before it grows out of control.”
  • “Mushroom – soon you will do something that will surprise everyone around.”
  • “Represent a short-term positive eroticism.”
  • “To see mushrooms in your dreams, denotes unhealthy desires, and unwise haste in amassing wealth, as it may vanish in law suits and vain pleasures.”
  • “See mushrooms in a dream – to long life and good fortune.”
  • “Mushrooms can grow anywhere, on anything, in any condition and in any climate. If the mushrooms in your dream appeared by surprise, or were given as a gift, this may indicate some exciting changes in your near future. If your psyche is alerting you to some changes, you might want to keep in mind that change also requires us to be versatile. If you are uprooted you can easily plant yourself somewhere else. Mushrooms can also represent our soul in this way and may mean that someone is ready to expose their soul to you or adversely you may be ready to share that part of yourself with someone else. In the way that that mushroom represents a soul, it also represents longevity and rebirth.”

Additionally, we talk quite a bit about fungus in my permaculture group, as mycorrhizal fungi networks are key to soil and plant health in a complicated, complex way that amounts to: fungi is necessary for most plant growth.

maybe Hypholoma capnoides (conifer tuft) fungi in moss (Kezar Lake, Oct 2014)
maybe Hypholoma capnoides (conifer tuft) fungi in moss (Kezar Lake, Oct 2014)

And this year, I have been obsessively focused on fungi every time I’m outside, taking hundreds of photos of them. Though I don’t eat them, I am enchanted by their beauty and variety.

So, who knows?

This morning, I awoke from an involved dream in which I was teaching my first adult ed class on insects. Unfortunately, I knew very little about insects (even less than in waking life) and apparently had not researched the topic or made a class syllabus. Some of the class members knew much more, including a man who raised roses and spent a large part of the class — which was a field trip, outdoors, to find insects — talking about aphids and how to control them. Some in the class grew yellow or pink roses, while others didn’t grow roses; all were obviously disappointed that I didn’t lead the class better. One man left within 15 mins of our field trip beginning. I was carrying an insect reference book and trying to keep up with what others were saying and what I was supposed to be teaching. I thought we might check under rocks and logs for some insects, but then I doubted I could identify them or say much about them beyond an ID.

greenaphidsonaweed2Oct2013I’m not even sure what to google for this dream. It was about teaching, badly, or generally being prepared and not knowing what one is expected to know, but the insect and aphid aspects also seems important to me. I do spend a lot of time in waking life trying to get various insects identified from photos (via books and online expert sources),  though less at this time of year than in spring and summer. I don’t grow roses but have consistently had small yellow aphids on asclepias (milkweed) plants.

“Bugs” obviously connote feeling bugged, annoyed, but this dream didn’t feature a bug per se … more the absence of bugs. Instead, we merely talked about them, and particularly about aphids  — “If you dream a lot of aphids, in the near future you will meet on your way a dishonest person, which at first will seem honest and trustworthy” and “Aphid teaches the importance of nourishment; spiritual, emotional and physical. Are your basic needs being met? Is it time to jumpstart your metabolism?” for two interpretations. And I think at one point I told those who were there to hear about butterflies that we would talk about them but that other insects (and I was unsure in the dream, but not in waking life, if a butterfly was even an insect, which shows how little I knew) would also be discussed.

Connecting the two dreams, perhaps, I found this interpretation of “aphid,” which seems like it could apply equally well to fungi, which uses waste products to facilitate growth and which is resourceful in an ever-changing environment:

“Part of Aphid’s medicine is about self-empowerment. You have all that is needed within and it’s time to seek and find. She demonstrates resourcefulness, riding the winds of change and making the absolute best of the situation. Use what is considered a “waste product” to your sweetest advantage.”

Not sure where that leaves me, though. Except instead of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, there are fungi and aphids up there. Ho ho ho.