2015 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2015: 54
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: 4.5 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (April, June, Oct., Nov., Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (August), and 9 in July, 8 in March

percentage by male authors: 48% (26)
percentage by female authors: 52% (28)

fiction as percentage of total: 85% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 63% (29 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 15% (8 books)

percentage of total liked: 52% (28 books)
percentage of total so-so: 33% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 15% (8 books)

Notes:

As always, the limiting factor in my reading this year was not being able to find anything I wanted to read.

I started reading two crime fiction series, the Joe Gunther series by Archer Mayor, set in Vermont, and the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie King, both of which came with high recommendations from friends. After reading quite a few in each series, liking some and not liking others, my interest in them just petered out; the Joe Gunther series became boring, and the Russell/Holmes series became annoying.

My favourite books of the year were That Distant Land by Wendell Berry (short stories), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. In general, I didn’t love much of what I read. Hoping for better in 2016!

Books Read 2015

Once again (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Strange Shores (2010/US 2014) by Arnaldur Indridason, in the Inspector Ernaldur series, set in Iceland. This one differs from others in the series because it isn’t a police novel; it’s the story of Ernaldur’s investigations into a missing person event from the past. Matthildur — a woman who lived in the town in which Ernaldur grew up — went missing during a blizzard, but her body was never found. As Ernaldur relentlessly questions the few people still alive who may know what happened, he also relives the day when he, his younger brother, and his father were lost in a blizzard, from which his brother never returned. The book is haunting, atmospheric, beautifully written. Not a traditional crime or suspense novel.

Borderlines (1990) by Archer Mayor, 2nd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in the fictional town of Gannett in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The plot involves a back-to-nature cult that’s bought a lot of the real estate in town and runs the thriving restaurant, and a town divided for and against them.

Scent of Evil (1992) by Archer Mayor, 3rd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in Brattleboro, VT, where Lt. Gunther is based, and involves drugs, politics, wealth, and sex, an includes a high-speed chase, several shoot-outs, an unusual torturous death, and mistrust inside the police department. Good.

Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (1993) by Thatcher Freund. NF. Read for a bookgroup.  One of the more boring books I’ve read (and finished) in a long time. If you like the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” you will probably like this; if not, not. The book weaves the stories of three main pieces of American furniture – an 1750s American blue blanket chest made in Connecticut, a 1750s Chippendale card table from Philadelphia, and an inlaid sofa table made in Salem MA, of the Federal period (around 1800) — with the stories of many American collectors, dealers, buyers, restorers, sellers, pickers, and auctioneers incuding Henry Ford, Henry Du Pont, Joseph Hirshhorn, Bill Stahl, Allan Breed, Wayne Pratt, Fred Giampietro, Israel, Albert & Harold Sack, George Samaha, twins Leslie and Leigh Keno, and others. Structured well and written serviceably (though a bit over-the-top in places) but the topic, items, and people are just uninteresting to me.

February

The Brothers K (1992) by David James Duncan, a novel about the Chance family, obsessed with baseball and religion (Seventh Day Adventist), headed by two strong parents, with four sons and two daughters coming of age in the 1960s. As many reviews say, it’s at times very funny and very moving. By turns a philosophical treatise, a page from Sporting News, a family confessional along the lines of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, an epistolary novel, a travelogue of India, a Vietnam war memoir, etc., it’s a complex family saga fueled by pain, loss, eccentricity, and an all-embracing love.

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree (1993) by Archer Mayor, #5 in the Joe Gunther series. In this one, Joe’s longtime girlfriend and a town selectman, Gail Zigman, is raped, leading not only to pain and suffering for Gail and Joe but also to “a media frenzy due to her political prominence, his involvement in the case, and her refusal to hide behind a shroud of anonymity.” Set mainly in Brattleboro, but also in Thetford, where Joe’s mother and brother, Leo, live.

The Dark Root (1995) by Archer Mayor, #6 in the Joe Gunther series. The focus in this book is on rival Asian gangs, who are moving illegal aliens, guns, and drugs from New York and Boston to Montreal, and doing violent home invasions, money laundering, and protection rackets. Joe works with the Border Patrol, the FBI, and the Canadian Mounties chasing rival gangs from Brattleboro to Montreal to White River Junction & West Lebanon NH, which was interesting for me, as I know this area and could picture the (on-foot) chase scene quite well.

The Ragman’s Memory (1996) by Archer Mayor, #7 in the Joe Gunther series. Plot involves the discovery of the body of a troubled teenager from out of town, a planned convention center, political bribery and manoeuvering, a missing local activist, and a World War II vet with PTSD in a nursing home, who may have seen the killer.

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) by Anne Tyler. A book spanning generations of the lives of Abby and Red Whitshank. Set in Baltimore, of course. Lovely, as always.

March

Bellows Falls (1997) by Archer Mayor, #8 in the Joe Gunther series.  Set in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Burlington, with police forces from each town involved, the plot revolves around a controlling man who has created a network of drug sellers in various Vermont towns; he comes to the attention of the police here after he accuses a Bellows Falls policeman of having an affair with his wife, and then that policeman is found to have cocaine in his urine and in his house. One online reviewer of another book in the series describes it as “solid noir mystery” and “an offbeat New England tour guide, too;” next time I take the train through Bellows Falls, I will see it differently.

The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak, for a bookgroup. I wasn’t excited to read it, knowing it was another book about World War II, and while it is set in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1943, it’s a smaller, more personal novel than that. The tone – seemingly simplistic, but also self-consciously cryptic, or so it felt — was off-putting at the start but I quickly came to appreciate the narrator’s voice. The writing is moving, sometimes amusing, and elegantly understated, laconic, not dramatic, and simply factual at times, which makes it deeply stark and spare. I like that the novel employs the opposite of foreshadowing (often annoying in novels): future events are stated directly, not hinted at in or insinuated in some shadowy way meant to make the reader anxious. The plot centers on Leisel, a foster child of almost 10 when the story starts., who comes to live in a town outside of Munich with foster parents who are large-hearted, “good in a crisis,” and very poor.  I don’t want to give away any more of the story. I liked it a lot.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (2011), ed. by Thomas Christopher, with essays by Rick Darke, Eric Tonsmeier, Toby Hemenway, Doug Tallamy, Elaine Ingham, et al., on permaculture, natives vs. non-natives, managing soil health, waterwise gardens, green roofs, gardening for wildlife, meadow gardens, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the sustainable edible garden, climate change gardening, and while system garden design. Uneven but useful. The chapters on soil (surprisingly), wildlife gardening, and the discussions among several essays on natives vs. exotics were most useful for me.

The Disposable Man (1998) by Archer Mayor, #9 in the Joe Gunther series. This started out as a police procedural, with the twist along the way that Gunther is being investigated for theft, but the second half was a Russian spy thriller. Set in Brattleboro, West Townshend, Middlebury, the Northern Kingdom, all in Vermont, and in Washington DC. I could have skipped it. I guess there really isn’t enough ordinary crime in Brattleboro — even imaginary crime — to inspire more than a few crime novels without having to resort to Chinese gangs and the Russian mafia.

Still Alice (2007) by Lisa Genova, about Alice Howland, PhD., a cognitive psychology and linguistics professor at Harvard, who, at age 50, starts noticing memory lapses (forgetting to do things and not realising she has forgotten, getting lost in a familiar place, etc.) and soon learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Told from her increasingly confused point-of-view, with her husband and 3 grown kids as the other major characters. A quick read, a powerful story.

Breaking Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, starting a new series, I think, featuring charismatic dog search-and-rescue trainer and handler (and ex-Marine) Ryder Creed, who lives with his dogs in Pensacola FL; but FBI agent Maggie O’Dell — the protagonist of anotehr of Kava’s series — also has a big role in this book. Lots of extremely well-trained dogs of all breeds in this book, as well as traumatised military vets, and drug-trafficking, child-trafficking, and torture with fire ants, spiders, and scorpions.

Occam’s Razor (1999) by Archer Mayor, #10 in the Joe Gunther series. Set mostly in Brattleboro, though also in Montpelier, and in Portland, ME, with focus on political wrangling, hazardous material dumping, and the murder of a man killed by a train on railroad tracks and of a drug-using woman stabbed in her own home. Gail and Joe are working out their relationship, too.

The Attack (2005) by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), originally in French. The novel takes on the themes of integration and assimilation, identity, terrorism, tolerance, sacrifice, healing and killing, happiness and suffering as it tries to come to terms with what creates a suicide bomber. Central is Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim from a Bedouin tribe who has moved up in life to become a wealthy Israeli, a professional (a surgeon) living in Tel Aviv. The novel raises many questions about conflict, terrorism, and how we identify ourselves (and how others identify us) but for me it fails to really provide any complex understanding as to why Amin’s wife becomes a suicide bomber. That may be what’s intended; there are theories floated by many characters in the novel, but she doesn’t really match any of them, and Amin’s blindness as to who she truly was may represent our own in some way.

April

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. Novel, for a bookgroup. Set mostly in France (also Germany, Russia) from 1934-1944, during World War II, following two stories, that of a blind girl, Marie-Laure, very interested in natural history and raised by her puzzle-making father, who is evacuated to her eccentric great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo, a walled French city attacked by the Germans in August 1944; and Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy who lives with his sister in a small orphanage near Essen, Germany, until he is chosen to attend the National Political Institutes of Education, an elite Reich school, where he excels in electronics. Many themes and motifs, including  mazes, birds, bees, the natural world generally, entropy, locks and keys, blindness and seeing, value derived from nature (coal from dead plants, diamonds from carbon), the past in the present, etc. A fast, readable book, but felt to me simplistic in terms of good and bad, heroes and villains.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande. Non-fiction. Gawande, a surgeon, writes about aging, independence, assisted living and nursing homes, dying, conversations to have about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death. It’s a topic that interests me and his writing is compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which was dry. He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of desires, fears, and how voicing desires and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make good 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.

 May

The Paying Guests (2014) by Sarah Waters. Set in a genteel 1922 post-war suburb of London, Champion Hill, this novel centers on 26-year-old Francis Wray — whose voice and thoughts basically narrate the third-person story — and her mother, who own a house but have been left with little money to maintain it, and their paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber. Len works as a clerk in an insurance company and seems to leer at Francis a lot. His and Lilian’s marriage is tumultuous. An NPR review sets out the basic conflict: “Frances has it bad, and that’s not good. Normally she’s an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.” Very readable, but also quite predictable.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014) by Gabrielle Zevin. Funny, light novel about a curmudgeonly, widowed, young bookseller, who, through a series of events, has his life changed. Set on Alice Island, apparently off Massachusetts, the novel starts with a new publisher’s rep traveling  on a ferry to meet the bookseller, but soon we follow his life more than hers, until they come together again. I read this book in about 3 hours … quite light, yet surprisingly emotional at times.

Tucker Peak (2001) by Archer Mayor, in the Joe Gunther series. Southern Vermont ski resort has big problems, with protestors, drug dealers, embezzlers, etc.  I lost track of who the bad guys were, and why, part way through and never really got re-engaged.

I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (who writes a crime series featuring attorney Þóra Guðmundsdóttir ): Set in Iceland. Two plots alternate, chapter by relentless chapter, one involving three Rejkjavik twenty-somethings — a couple and their recently widowed female friend — who buy an abandoned house in the deserted and very remote fjord village of Hesteyri, reachable only by ferry in good weather, hoping to renovate it and use it as a B&B, and the other plot focusing on a psychologist who lives in the large fjord town of Isafjordur and whose 6-year-old son went missing two years previously.  The stories are complex and the reader glimpses how they might intertwine, but to tell anymore would be to give away too much. Ghost stories and plots with supernatural explanations don’t do much for me, though this one is well-written, certainly atmospheric, and held my interest most of the time. There are really no happy characters among the cast of dozens.

June

Bad Debts (1996/2013) by Peter Temple, the first in the Jack Irish series, set near Melbourne, Australia. Involves horse racing, gambling, government corruption, and basically men with guns and secrets to hide. I got lost with the large list of characters, the plot twists, and I had to look up some Australian terms and slang. The book was very put-downable – reading it over 2 weeks might be why I got so lost. I’ll try the next one and see if it’s more compelling.

Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng, a debut novel, set in the 1970s, about a family whose members struggle with secrets, silences and unspoken longings, regrets, betrayal, little cruelties, feeling different and outcast. The death of just-16-year-old daughter Lydia, who drowns in a nearby lake, is the focus of the plot which looks back to the parents’ first meeting as well as studying the contemporary events around her death.  Reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel, if her novels were set in a midwest college town and explored what being American and looking Chinese felt like. The book explores longing and loss in depth. 5th-grader Hannah — used to being ignored, noticer of everything — is my favourite character.

July

Of Love and Other Demons (1994) by Gabriel García Márquez, a short novel set in a South America seaport around 1750. Told from the point of view of others, the story is about 12-year-old Sierva Maria, “the only child of a decaying noble family,” raised mainly by the black slave women, who is bitten by a dog who has rabies. Although she never develops symptoms of rabies, she is outcast, feared, and treated as though possessed by a demon by the clergy and others. In essence a book about our terror and vicitimisation of “the other.”

A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch. Amateur detective and wealthy MP Charles Lenox, newly married to Lady Jane, takes on the murder of a friend’s footman when asked; but then the friend and his wife tell him in no uncertain terms to lay off the case. Set in Victorian London. Not terribly exciting but an OK read.

The Sea Garden: A Novel (2014) by Marcia Willett. About a young artist, Jess, who, through coincidence, comes to live with a family that she learns is related to her own family. Set in contemporary England on the Devon coast, the book uses flashbacks — including repetition of paragraphs two or three times when characters are remembering or thinking about what we’ve already been told — to tell a story about family, friends, betrayal and forgiveness. A gentle read, with lots of adultery. Too many characters for me to follow well but I liked the pace and slice of life feeling of the book.

The Sniper’s Wife (2002) by Archor Mayor, #13 in the Joe Gunther series. This one focuses on Vermont detective Willy Kunkle, whose ex-wife has died, and takes place almost solely in NYC, but ends at the defunct naval prison in Portsmouth, NH. We learn more about Kunkle’s Manhattan childhood, his family now, and his time with the NYPD and in Vietnam, as well as about neighborhoods in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side and Washington Heights. Joe and Sam come to town when Willy is arrested in a random bust of an illegal club. Plot pretty straighforward: Willy suspects Mary’s death wasn’t suicide or an accidental overdose, as it seems, and delves into the case with the help of the law and outside it.

The Gatekeeper (2003) by Archer Mayor, #14 in the Joe Gunther series. The  Vermont Bureau of Investigation is pulled into the case of the hanging of a drug addict and a young woman’s drug overdose in Rutland, VT, by the governor in an election year, expected to stop the flow of heroin into the state. Before Joe can really get going on the case, agent Sammie Martens goes undercover in Holyoke, MA hoping to gain info to make the VBI valuable to the locals and the state police. The plot focuses on Sammie organising a drug ring with criminals in Rutland, and to a lesser extent on agent Lester Spinney’s suspicions about his own teenaged son’s drug use. Joe doesn’t have much to do with the crime cases, but he and his off-putting girlfriend Gail are in another bad place together as she shuts him out after her niece is killed trying to rob a convenience store for drug money. Set in Holyoke, MA, and Brattleboro, Springfield, and Rutland, VT. The ending is a bit anticlimactic but in a realistic way, which is nice for a change.

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown. The phrase “epic quest” really told me all I needed to know — that’s one of the types of stories I like least — but I read it because it was a bookgroup choice. It’s mostly well-written and well-structured, though repetitive, but the main problem for me is how predictable it is. Not just the history — what’s going on in Germany then, the Dust Bowl and Depression in the U.S., the perceptions of the elite East vs. the rugged West, how the ultimate boat race turns out — which of course we know now, but the predictability throughout of the boys’ characters and actions. They are not only portrayed as thoroughly “good” but the author can’t seem to think of enough synonyms for “good”: loyal, perseverant, committed, humble, honorable, graceful, civil, “good men, one and all.” It’s a pleasant, nostalgic, readable book, with a lot for the novice to learn about rowing. I felt like I’d read a light novel when it was over, though admittedly with some darkness lurking around the edges. The most interesting aspect for me are the details about the propaganda-driven framing and filming of the Olympics.

A Fall of Marigolds (2014) by Susan Meissner, a romantic novel set in New York City 1911, 2001, and 2011, interweaving the stories of two young women, the main one about nurse Clara Wood, who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at the time of the fire in 1911, and the secondary one set in contemporary times, about Taryn, co-owner of a specialty fabric store, whose husband died in the North Tower in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Both stories are about Love, with a capital L, and how it motivates us; both stories, particularly Clara’s, quite romantic in the sense that she is all emotion and imagination for 99% of the story.  A light beach read, even though the plot is anchored by the twin tragedies.

Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth (2015) by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. A good review of what I’ve mostly read in other permaculture books. Lovely photos. Emphasis on designing a permaculture garden, your own or a client’s. The chapter on soil was better than average on the topic. Read and discussed over a few months with a group.

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014) by Katrina Blair, read for permaculture bookgroup. Blair writes first about her background and how she lives in and views the natural world, then devotes a chapter to each of “13 Essential Plants for Human Survival,” which are amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed (polygonum aviculare), lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, and thistle. Food, medicinal, and beauty recipes are included. “The Earth’s Principal Rivers and Their Tributaries” on page 12 was one of my favourite parts of the book. She speaks a lot about seeing problems as resources and about creating abundance, and about the life force and “wild intelligence” of wild plants becoming part of us when we ingest them. Equal parts woo-woo with practical, useful information.

August

The Corsican Caper (2014) by Peter Mayle, a novel set in Marseilles and Corsica, mainly. Pretty bad. The plot and drawing of characters is incredibly simplistic. For example, when Sam decides to stand in for someone whom a brutal, murderous Russian has contracted to kill, Sam’s wife says, Well, OK, but be careful, and another character, whom Sam has just met, suggests that her beloved dog be part of the entrapment. Both of these reactions seems beyond belief to me, but on the other hand, the reader feels absolutely no sense of tension at all, so why should the characters?  The plot is that a rich Russian man wants the home of billionaire Francis Reboul and will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Reboul’s friends plot (at many dinners, lunches, and other festive occasions) to outwit and entrap the Russian.  The only thing that kept me reading was the continuous descriptions of eating and drinking along the beautiful south of France. Mayle seems much better at non-fiction than fiction, based on having read this book and having seen his Year in Provenance.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) by Laurie King, first in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I almost put the book down after reading the contrived preface and prelude but read on because someone had recommend these books to me. In the end, I liked it well enough. The writing is good. The novel is set during WWI (1915 to 1919 in this case) in England as well as briefly in the middle east, mainly Palestine/Israel, and it is made up of a sort of caper, then a serious kidnapping case, and then a case that brings mortal danger to Holmes and Russell; I would have preferred one mystery but I accept that the author wanted the reader to see Mary Russell’s evolution as a sleuth as well as the evolution of Russell and Holmes’ relationship through these cases. I haven’t read any of the original Conan Doyle stories about Holmes, so perhaps many allusions were lost on me.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995) by Laurie King, second in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I guess I liked this better than the first one but it was still very put-downable. Lots of romantic thoughts by Mary about Holmes, which come to fruition of a sort in the end. At the crux of the story is Margery Childe, a charismatic spiritual leader of The New Temple of God, a sort of mystic suffragette group, in Whitechapel, London, which Mary is introduced to through her college friend Veronica Beaconsfield; several of Childe’s followers have died recently, leaving large sums of money in their Wills to The Temple.

A Letter of Mary (1996) by Laurie King, third in the Russell/Holmes series. This one involves an acquaintance of theirs, an amateur archaeologist,  who gives them a box and a manuscript she’s brought from Jerusalem and is soon after run down on a London street. Russell and Holmes (now married) both go undercover to investigate separate areas of inquiry.

The Moor (1998) by Laurie King, fourth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Dartmoor in the southwest of England, where Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was set.  The aged eccentric Rev. Baring-Gould has asked them to investigate an unexplained death on the moor and sightings of a ghost coach and dog. Again Russell and Holmes largely work independently on separate aspects of the investigation, with the bulk of the novel following Russell’s movements and thoughts.

That Distant Land (2004) by Wendell Berry, a book of 23 short stories about the people of Port William, KY, set from 1888 to 1986. Read for bookgroup. Excellent, lovely, moving, compassionate, funny stories about Tol and Minnie Proudfoot; Andy and Wheeler Catlett; Burley, Nathan, Hannah, and Thad Coulter; Elton Penn; Ben and Mat Feltner; Mart and Art Rowanberry; Danny Branch. Stories of hunting and tracking in the woods, tobacco harvesting, hog killing, whiskey drinking, the introduction of the Model A, dying and death, inheritance, going to the fair, selling livestock, parade floats, courting. Several predominant themes: mortality, getting lost and being found, memory, nostalgia for times past, forms of farming and technology, the farm vs. the city, small town life and community, what makes life worth living.

O Jerusalem (1999) by Laurie King, fifth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Palestine/Israel, including in Jericho, Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, in 1919, as the British are starting to leave the area after the war. Holmes and Russell are disguised for 90% of the book as Bedouin men and are accompanied through the book by brothers Ali and Mahmoud Hazr. My least favourite, a bit of a slog through the Arabic speaking, the landscape descriptions, the tunnel description, the coffee prep ritual twice daily, etc.  Glad I read it, though, because the characters reappear in her next book, and also because it provides some detailed political history of this highly volatile part of the middle east.

Justice Hall (2002) by Laurie King, 6th in the Russell/Holmes series, set mostly at a British manor house, and briefly in Canada. Marsh Hughenfort (aka Mahmoud Hazr from the previous book), younger brother of the Duke of Beauville, has returned to England as dutiful heir after his brother’s death, along with his cousin Alistair (Ali Hazr), who seeks Holmes’ and Russell’s help to unearth another heir so Marsh can relinquish the heavy title and go back to Palestine. Much of the book concerns unraveling the mystery of what happened to young Gabriel Hughenfort, the late Duke’s only son, who was executed during the last days of the Great War.  I liked the setting, and descriptions of the over-the-top fancy dress party with ancient Egyptian theme, but the plot was weak and some of the characters (especially the women) felt caricaturish.

The Game (2004) by Laurie King, 7th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in British colonial India as Mycroft sends Holmes and Russell to look into the 3-year disappearance of Kimball O’Hara (“Kim” from the Rudyard Kipling novel). Again Russell has to disguise herself as a man, again she has to hunt animals (instead of bird hunting as in Justice Hall it’s wild boar hunting — or pig sticking — here), again she and Holmes are largely separated and doing independent investigations, again a very large house is as much character as it is setting. The book has several distinct settings of activity: a 2-week shipboard to start with, a road journey near Delhi on foot with magic show and costumes, a languid time spent in a huge home in Khanpur (in disguise and out of it), and time spent with British government operatives. The maharaja at the center of the plot is a cruel, manipulative, sociopath whose behaviour heightens the suspense.

The Sweet Dove Died (1978) by Barbara Pym: Read in a few hours, another wonderful novel of the subtlety of relationships and motivations by Pym. A middle-aged woman befriends a man of about her age and his nephew, preferring the attentions of the nephew, who lavishes her with attention until he first meets a girl his own age and then a boy of about his own age. Rivalry, envy, jealousy, narcissism (mirrors abound), selfishness, greed, fear of aging and appearing vulnerable, and other interesting emotions and behaviours fuel the superficially simple story.

September

Dear Life (2012) by Alice Munro, a collection of short stories plus a few snippets of memoir.  On the plus side, I like her unemphatic, sometimes plotless way of writing. I like the disorientation so many of her characters seem to feel. Some of her turns of phrase are genius. On the other hand, most of the stories in this collection feel like they were crafted for a creative writing class. Admittedly, they’re better than most of what you’d find in such a class, but there is a writerly feeling about them that gets in the way of the stories for me. They feel less like real life and more like a constructed ideal of stories about conflict, mistakes, regrets, vices, fatal flaws. Probably in a few years I will recall some snippets and wonder where I read them. “Gravel” and “In Sight of the Lake” were my two favourites.

The Locked Room (2005) by Laurie King, 8th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in prohibition-times San Francisco, as Russell (Holmes with her) spends a couple of weeks reacquainting herself with her old home in the city, her family’s lake house; meeting the son of her parents’ Chinese servants; remembering the 1906 earthquake and fires; trying to get to the bottom of three dreams that have troubled her recently; and in the course of investigations, enlisting the help of detective and writer Dashiell Hammett. If you have an interest in San Francisco in the early 1900s, you’ll find this book provides an intriguing combination of ambiance and facts.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/1999 – Norton 3rd Critical Edition) by Mark Twain. For bookgroup. Funnier than I expected, quicker and easier to read than I expected with the regional language and dialect, but I still don’t understand how this is considered a major classic. It’s the story of a teenage boy, living in the rural mid-west/south (Missouri), who because of his age, upbringing, and circumstances is somewhat of an outsider to the culture, observing the culture through eyes that are at times naive but always sharp. Early on, Huck escapes his violent father by taking off on a raft down the Mississippi from Illinois through Kentucky and Arkansas. He’s accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave, and runs into some characters along the way, like the shysters “the Duke” and “the King,” and into the feuding Gragerfords and Shepherdsons, before eventually meeting up with Tom Sawyer again. The Mississippi River is also a character in the book.

The Language of Bees (2009) by Laurie King, 9th in the Russell/Holmes series. Set in England, in Sussex and London, and a little in Orkney, an island off Scotland near Scandinavia. Started off well, with much about bees and beekeeping that was interesting, but before too long, I lost interest in the plot. The crime story is centered on a religious cult figure and his book, Testimony, and one of his followers, Yolanda, a woman from Singapore who happens to be the wife of Holmes’ newly found (again) son, Damian Adler, a surrealist artist to whom drug addiction, violence, and mental health issues are no stranger. Holmes seemed completely out of character in this one, barely heard from and when he was, all mushy about his grown son and fondly reminiscent about Irene Adler, the boy’s mother. One long section of the book is taken up with Mary’s harrowing flight in a small plane from London to Orkney; of course, flight was a new thing, and not for the faint of heart (which great pains are taken to show that Mary is not) even without wind, rain, a hungover pilot, a time crunch, and lack of landing strips. The book doesn’t really end, just says “to be continued.” Unsure whether I will.

October

The God of the Hive (2010) ) by Laurie King, 10th in the Russell/Holmes series. I should have followed my instincts at the end of The Language of Bees. I tried to read this book, for six weeks, never choosing it over anything else to read, finally getting to about page 250 before giving up. I lost interest pretty early on, when a toddler becomes a central character and Mary suddenly devotes her life to protecting this child. That’s the last one in this series I’ll be reading.

Devil’s Bridge (2015) by Linda Fairstein, #17 in the Alexandra Cooper series, except Alex is only present in about half the book, before being kidnapped. NYPD detective, and now Alex’s lover, Mike Chapman narrates the rest of the book as he and fellow detective Mercer Wallace try to find her and figure out a motive for her disappearance, taking us to the Manhattan waterfront — including Liberty Island, and Fort Washington Park (with Jeffrey’s Hook lighthouse) at the George Washington Bridge in their search on land and sea. The switch in POV worked fine for me, though the reason for her kidnapping was slightly implausible to me.

November

The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah. (For a bookgroup.) Yet another novel set during WWII, this one centers on two estranged sisters, one single, willful, and living in Paris and the other settled with husband and daughter in the village of Carriveau. The best of this book is that it takes the reader almost day by day (or so it felt) through the daily grind and frequent horror of living in France from 1939 to the Nazi-occupation, starting in the summer of 1940, through the end of the war in 1945, and then 50 years into the future as one of the sisters, living in the U.S., is invited to a ceremony in France (present time occupies only a few brief chapters interspersed throughout the book). Women populate the book and the action; the men — other than a couple of Nazi officers, the sisters’ father in Paris, and a few French resisters — are absent, mostly off fighting, while the women are living on inadequate food, medicine, clothing, and heat rations; unwillingly billeting and feeding Nazis in their homes; burying friends and children; trying to find homes for orphaned Jewish children when their mothers are taken away; afraid to speak to or look at each other for fear of being turned in for some crime. The sense of how long it all dragged on, how hopeless it seemed when each month or so something more frightening, horrifying, disheartening, or debilitating happened, is driven home.  There is also quite a lot about running a Resistance escape route for downed Allied soldiers through the Pyrenees. Still, for some reason, I wasn’t really engaged in the story (I struggled to keep reading the book over three weeks) or the characters. I think it felt a bit predictable: good Nazi, bad Nazi; hiding places in barn and convent; simple comparison-contrast between the sisters’ personalities and actions, though of course both are depicted as heroines; melodrama rather than nuance at every turn. Even the sisters’ moral dilemmas and choices, and their feelings about their choices, which are played and replayed numerous times, feel hyped and fabricated. It’s mainly an adequately plotted linear story meant to demonstrate the strength of women in a crisis and to depict the hardship and terror of that time and place, diminished by a shallow romance and cliche characters, without the lyrical writing and complex themes of All the Light We Cannot See.

Thérèse Raquin (1867) by Émile Zola. A very dark psychological novel of utterly destructive violence, set in a dark, fetid corner of Paris. Thérèse Raquin is married to her cousin, the sickly, spoiled, self-absorbed Camille, by their selfish and possessive aunt, but even before this occurs, she has felt suffocated and repressed by cousin and aunt; the marriage brings things to a head, and when she feels her blood rising for Laurent, a thick-necked, lazy, calculating man, it’s not long before they are lovers. The book read like a morality play infested with an Edgar Allen Poe story of horror, irony, . As others have noted, the four temperaments hypothesis of the time is prominent: Thérèse is melancholic, Laurent is sanguine, Camille is phlegmatic, and Madame Raquin (the aunt) is choleric; motivation deriving from “blood” and “nerves” is repeatedly described. The central idea of the novel is that violence, once unleashed, destroys all.  Resentment (and its consequences) is another major theme, as well as imprisonment (claustrophobia, suffocation, paralysis), punishment (confession, guilt, revenge, hauntings), obsession. I grew weary of it about halfway through; the characters seemed unreal, simply stand-ins for psychological traits and reactions.

December

The Nature of the Beast (2015) by Louise Penny, 11th in the Inspector Gamache series, set in the village of Three Pines, Quebec, which can’t be found using a GPS. This book is based loosely on a true story, of Gerald Bull, a scientist and arms designer who created a massive missile launcher as part of the Babylon project. Gamache (now retired), Isabelle Lacoste, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir investigate after a young boy — who has found a huge gun in the woods and bursts into the bistro to tell everyone — is murdered. Elements of other stories are interwoven:  an American who fled to the town to escape serving in the Vietnam War, two strange Canadian intelligence service agents with secrets they won’t share, and, most interestingly to me, Gamache’s past service at the secret trial of a cruel killer — his role, as a citizen not associated with the case, to represent all Canadians and to hear, see, and absorb the horror of the crimes. The plot is complicated and though the ending made sense, it wasn’t very satisfying or elegant.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein, non-fiction, for a group. We read this over about 10 weeks and eventually decided it wasn’t worth spending 2 hours per week discussing. There is really nothing substantially new here. If you are already someone who is aware of climate change and environmental politics, you may not know all the names (of people, corporate and non-profit entities), numbers (lots of them!), or the complicated relationships among “green” groups, politicians, and fossil fuel companies, and the anecdotes may be unfamiliar, but you will already know the gist of the book, which is that we are no where near doing anything as a planet about climate change, and our destructive ideologies and practices concerning energy usage, materialism, endless growth, etc., are already ruining the planet. If you are not into this stuff, or are a climate change skeptic, you will likely be turned off by what she says and how she says it. Her main suggestion for change is for all of us to become active locally, globally, in politics, in organizations, in big ways, collectively (not by simply turning off lights at home or using transportation less), to change policies, politics, culture, particularly in western, capitalist countries that use the most fossil fuel resources and emit the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all in the name of progress, growth, jobs, military defense, and freedom. As I said, nothing new, and quite a slog through the weeds to get there.

 

René Girard has Died

ReneGirard

“We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”

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The “Immortel” founder of mimetic theory, René Girard, has died today, less than two months before his 92nd birthday. He has had probably the biggest influence on my life of anyone, from the time I first read The Girard Reader (1996, ed. James G. Williams) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), in 2003 or 2004, after learning about him through Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

I’ve often wondered how much of his influence on me is due to his presenting a new idea that changed ever after how I thought, and how much due to his ideas resonating with what I already felt. I think it’s both: Girard’s ideas resonated because I already felt the truth of them in my life, but until I read his work, and that of other Girardians, I didn’t have a hermeneutic, a method for reading and interpreting both printed texts and situations in life, that was consistent and clear to me; I was trying to fit my observations and insights into other theologies, philosophies, anthropologies, sociologies and psychologies, and finding a mismatch.

If you too feel this way — that the way you read the motivations and consequences of situations in your own life, characters in a novel, history, politics, etc., seems uncorroborated by the media, philosophers, theologians, historians, those around you — then you might read some of his work and see what you find.

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“The true threat to the world today comes from the mad ambitions of states and capitalists bent on destroying non-modern cultures. It is the so-called developed countries that plunder the planet’s resources without showing the least concern for consequences they are incapable of foreseeing.”

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Online References

Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91 by Cynthia Haven, Stanford News, 5 Nov. 2015

In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death  by Adam Ericksen at The Raven Foundation, today.

History is a test. Mankind is failing it: René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse , by Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine (2012?). Good introduction to the man and his work.

Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle, by James Alison, Nov. 2001. Reflections on 9/11. Excellent.

What Is Mimetic Theory? by Sherwood Belangia on his blog, Shared Ignorance: Toward A Defective Reading of Plato. Quite a good introduction to the key ideas.

In theory: Mimetic desire: Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world, in The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2010. Focus on mimesis in literature.

We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight by James Alison (2013/2014), a sort of introduction to this aspect of Girard’s thought

Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the underside by James Alison, Jan. 2006.

The Apocalypse of Modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau, in The Brussels Journal, 18 June 2012, on two of Girard’s books, Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End.

Intersubjectivity: René Girard’s Vision of Mimetic Desire and Economic Dynamics, Centre for International Governance Innovation, 18 April 2013. A fascinating video that starts with mention of Bill Buckner, the scapegoat supreme in New England.

Rene Girard and the Death Penalty by Charles Bellinger, 23 Feb. 2008.

Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory & The Scapegoat, at 180 Rule: Examining Psychopathy Through the Lens of Girardian Theory, 31 March 2012.

Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism (17 Sept 2013) by Suzanne Ross and Adam Ericksen, Raven Foundation.

My own notes on Girardian thought.

Books

By Girard
The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. (1982 in French as Le Bouc émissaire)
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. (1978 in French as Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde)
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001. (1999 in French as  Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair)
Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origin of Culture, with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. Bloomsbury Books, London, 2007.
Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Published originally as Achever Clausewitz, Editions Carnets Nord, 2007. Review at SF Gate.
When These Things Begin:Conversations with Michel Treguer. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

By James Alison
The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998. Excerpt.
Raising Abel, The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.
Faith Beyond Resentment, Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001
On Being Liked, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004.
Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

By Mark Heim
Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.

By Wolfgang Palaver
René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013.

By James G. Williams
The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.

 

20 or so Cheeky Questions

Kind of fun. The Planthunter, a new favourite online plant-art-nature magazine, interviews folks using 20 or so Cheeky Questions. Sort of like the Proust Questionnaire but more plant-oriented. Or as their tagline says, “Life. With Plants.” Some of the questions seem simple on the surface but when I tried to answer them, it took a bit of thought. (Links to some of the The Planthunter pieces below.)
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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.”

*

“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 .”

*      *      *      *

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.

*      *      *      *

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