State of Wonder

State of Wonder

“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett is available from the library in hardcover, audiobook, and downloadable ebook.

Inga Dellea-MessnerMedical researcher Annick Swenson, a protagonist in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, is not one for trivial tasks, like progress reports.

Mr. Fox, CEO of the pharmaceutical company funding her research, is not one to be ignored.

However, with a project this important, Fox cannot afford to pull the plug: Annick is studying an Amazonian tribe where the women are sustaining pregnancies well into their 60s and even 70s. (Imagine the implications!)

So Fox sends Dr. Anders Eckman to track her down. But when a cryptic letter from Swenson announcing the death of this father of four makes its way to Fox’s company, too many questions arise.

Why is this Swenson woman so resistant to cooperation?

Why would a doctor give no more information than “fever” in regards to the poor man’s death?

What in the world is Annick Swenson hiding?

And who better than Anders’ lab partner and Swenson’s former student, Dr. Marina Singh, to find out?

Under both emotional and professional pressure from Anders’ wife and Mr. Fox (who we quickly discover is more than just her boss), Marina will embark on a series of adventures both terrifying and poignant. Indulge in this book, and you’ll find yourself breathless.

I’m a busy woman; I’ll tell you that. Yet despite hosting gatherings, tutoring, and battling two head colds in the past few weeks, I read State of Wonder in only two sittings. The plot just absorbed me that much. Both her story and her characters are among the most provocative and complex I’ve ever read.

If you’re going to embark on this Amazonian journey, I will leave you with a few suggestions. Firstly, always focus on the issue at hand. Though they may be riveting, do not let Patchett’s bewitching side stories distract you. Also, whatever you do, do not seek a denouement. This book is meant to leave you in a truly confused, infuriatingly bewildered state of wonder.

Enjoy the boat ride!

(You might like this podcast of Ann Patchett’s appearance at Writers on a New England Stage. She reads an unforgettable passage about a battle with an anaconda.)

 

 

 

About Inga Dellea-Messner

Library Assistant Inga Dellea-Messner grew up in Windham and Hudson. She worked at the Rodgers Memorial Library for seven years before becoming a library assistant at the Nashua Public Library. On her way to earning her bachelor’s degree from Keene State, she spent five months studying French in Bretagne (Brittany).

The Illusion of Free Will

Free Will

“Free Will” by Sam Harris is available from the library in hardcover.

Loren RossonAre we responsible for our actions? In Free Will, neuroscientist Sam Harris argues no, that our experience of free will is an illusion.

Free will implies two things:

(1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza.

(2) That we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives—the thinker of our thoughts, the intender of our intentions. I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her.

Harris says the problem with the first assumption is that we live in a determinist universe (a world of cause and effect) and everything that could possibly constitute our will is the product of a chain of prior causes–genes, environment, social networks, patterns of electrochemical activity in the brain, atomic states at this or that precise moment. We’re not responsible for any of this, and to say “I could have done otherwise” is to say, essentially, that I could have been a different person or I could have been in a different universe.

The problem with the second is that the conscious desires and intentions that precede our actions are not their true origin. Everything we are consciously aware of at any moment is the result of a stream of neurophysiological events in the unconscious. We’re not aware of this stream and have no control over it. Our unconscious activity produces thoughts and emotions, and we are mere witnesses to the choices we think we are consciously making.

In other words, according to this wisdom, we aren’t responsible for our actions. Any of them. Literally. A psychopath isn’t responsible for psychopathic behavior any more than a good person can take credit for good deeds.

If that sounds alarming and nihilistic, Harris has things to say about what all of this means for us politically and morally. Read his stimulating book and find out. Also check out his short video clip below.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Carol Luers EymanI hesitate to review this book, because I noticed that of the 12 reviews I’ve posted here, four have been of books or films about aging and dying.

Being Mortal

“Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande is available from the library as a hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

Of course that’s the ending of every human story. Still, I swear this is my last post on that theme for now. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande is too compelling to pass up.

You would expect a book titled Being Mortal to exhort you to sign a living will and talk to your family about your wishes for end of life care.

While Gawande certainly encourages taking those steps, his stories more importantly force you to think through just what those wishes will be.

Gawande’s stories come from patients and health care providers he has known or interviewed. They read as smoothly as fiction as they span the stages of growing old, from independence in one’s own home to the point where things fall apart (often because a person literally falls) and dependency ensues.

Of course, that sequence frequently leads to a nursing home–for most of us, our worst nightmare. Yet Gawande’s chapters on nursing homes are the most informative and hopeful parts of the book.

Nursing homes: the back story
Chapter 3 gives a history of how nursing homes came about. In the 1950s, the government funded custodial units in hospitals for patients whose acute conditions had waned but whose chronic illness, weakness, or disability prevented their release, especially if they had no family to help.

“That was the beginning of the modern nursing home. They were never created to help people facing dependency in old age. They were created to clear out hospital beds–which is why they were called ‘nursing’ homes.”

The second chapter that has stuck with me is “A Better Life, ” in which the author profiles people who have built alternatives to traditional assisted-living and nursing homes. You have to admire Dr. Bill Thomas, who dispelled the pall of imminent death from an upstate-New York nursing home and imported life into the building: He adopted a greyhound, a lapdog, four cats, and a hundred parakeets and immersed the residents in their care.

Read more . . .
If you want to give this author a dry run, look for his occasional New Yorker articles. Two other author/physicians I recommend who write nonfiction for general audiences about the practice of medicine are Pauline Chen (Final Exam) and Jerome Groopman (try How Doctors Think).

 

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

A Late Quartet

Carol Luers EymanMany of us are familiar with the turbulence created by change in the workplace, be it a reorganization, a buyout, or a change in staffing. But the work we do in offices is rarely as personally charged and emotionally driven as the work of a musician.

A Late Quartet

“A Late Quartet” is available from the library on DVD.

So you can only imagine the turmoil that would be introduced into the personal, emotional, and professional lives of a group of musicians when their senior member announces, just as they are preparing for their 25th-anniversary concert, that he has Parkinson’s and will retire.

In A Late Quartet, a 2012 film directed by Yaron Zilberman, Christopher Walken plays Peter, the retiring bassist. His colleagues in the quartet are Daniel (Mark Ivanar), Juliette (Catherine Keener), and Robert, who is also Juliette’s husband (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Peter’s exit prompts Robert to reevaluate his own ambitions as second violinist. He works up the nerve to propose sharing the first violin chair that Daniel has occupied for 25 years. Daniel balks, leading Robert to seek his wife’s moral support for his plan as they ride home from rehearsal in a cab. When she equivocates, he demands the driver pull over and flees to find illicit comfort elsewhere.

As the story unfolds, we learn that these events are colored by a web of connections among the musicians, including a relationship between Daniel and Juliette when they were young conservatory students, which Robert suspects is still smoldering.

Watching the group come back from their personal animosities to perform one of Beethoven’s most difficult (and latest) string quartets, you’ll realize what’s required to reach the pinnacle of the classical music world. It’s not just skill in technique or artistic expression but the mental discipline to repress distractions and lose yourself in the piece at hand.

 

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Two Novels of the Norman Conquest

The Golden Warrior

“The Golden Warrior” by Hope Muntz is available from the library in hardcover.

Loren Rosson Seldom do competing historical novels cover the same ground in different ways with results just as pleasing, but The Golden Warrior (1948) by Hope Muntz and Lord of Sunset (1998) by Parke Godwin do just that.

Written exactly 50 years apart, they tell of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, in the two decades leading up to the Battle of Hastings.

The Golden Warrior is written in the old saga style and depicts two rival lords (Harold and William) who could have been friends if not for their opposing ambitions. Muntz neither demonizes nor glorifies them. Each is flawed and sympathetic; each emerges noble; each pushes his countrymen to a war that neither really wants but feels fated to prosecute. It’s a refreshing read in today’s politically loaded climate that tends to favor sides.

Lord of Sunset

“Lord of Sunset” by Parke Godwin is available from the library in trade paperback.

Lord of Sunset does take sides, and has a much more gritty, realistic tone. Godwin’s novel is a prequel to his Robin Hood epics (Sherwood, Robin and the King), which are set right after the Norman Conquest (1070s-1080s) instead of in the usual time period of the 1190s. This revisionism has many strengths, but the most significant result is that Lord of Sunset, as a prequel to Robin Hood, sets the stage for “angry rebellion against injustices,” in which we are predisposed to siding strongly with the English underdogs against William.

As I said, I’m hard pressed to say which story is better. Once I was hooked by The Golden Warrior, I felt like I was reading a classic; in Lord of Sunset I was gripped by political fever and social unrest.

The difference between the two representations of King Harold is best seen at the end, right before Hastings. Harold, the Golden Warrior, is pained to judge William even now, seeing in his foe too much of himself:

I could not tell which struck more deep, that I should lose mine honor, or that by him I lost it. I count him one of the greatest. Can I judge William? I followed the same road, the same spur drove me. He goes a bitter journey.

Harold, the Lord of Sunset, is sure of himself, placing the welfare of the English (like Aelred, father of the future Robin Hood) before his sovereign rights:

This earth is theirs, William, not mine. Before you draw your last breath, pray you grasp that. I may not surrender anything to you. Men like Aelred won’t let me. They just won’t have it.

Read and judge for yourself.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

This Century’s Greatest Injustice

Inga Dellea-MessnerI consider myself privileged, compared to many. I’ve received a splendid education. So why is it that I had no idea of the worst horror of our times, discussed in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: systemic misogyny practiced by cultures and governments?

Did you know that:

Half the Sky

“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn is available from the library in hardcover.

-more of the world’s women have died in the last 50 years simply because they were women, than all of the soldiers in all the battles of the 20th century

-“far more women are shipped into brothels each year in the early 21st century than African slaves were shipped into plantations each year in the 18th or 19th centuries–although the overall population was of course far smaller then”

- one woman in the world dies every minute due to a lack of care during pregnancy and childbirth

I have no statistics on rape, the numbers are so immeasurable. In much of the world it is a time-honored way of life. In some countries, the police gang-rape victims who report attacks! (The book gives many examples of this.)

Most of the brutal facts in Half the Sky are presented through real-life, heart-wrenching stories. Mahabouba Muhammad’s is one of the most moving.

Married off and impregnated at the age of 13, she developed a fistula in delivery, as often happens to young girls after long, obstructed labor. It left her leaking excrement, so the villagers abandoned her in an open hut so hyenas would eat her at night. This incredible woman took a stick, and–at the edge of death’s door–beat off the hyenas. She then proceeded to drag herself for miles to the nearest hospital. Eventually, she even became a nurse, helping other girls in the same predicament.

This story illustrates a central premise of Half the Sky: Women are not the world’s problem, but the solution. Read it and your gut will seize, your fists will clench, your blood will boil. These problems are unpalatable, incomprehensible to most of us. But the book nonetheless thrusts them at us and says: “Do something!”

I hope you will– even if it’s no more than picking up this book and informing yourself.

Please, please, hop on the ship of reality with me. You can begin by watching this TED Talk about the revolutionary Half the Sky movement.

 

About Inga Dellea-Messner

Library Assistant Inga Dellea-Messner grew up in Windham and Hudson. She worked at the Rodgers Memorial Library for seven years before becoming a library assistant at the Nashua Public Library. On her way to earning her bachelor’s degree from Keene State, she spent five months studying French in Bretagne (Brittany).

A family haunted

 The Fate of Mercy Alban

“The Fate of Mercy Alban” is available from the library in paperback, ebook, and downloadable audio versions.

Jen McCormackThe Fate of Mercy Alban  by Wendy Webb is a terrific haunted house novel rife with family secrets and unexplained events.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, the story unfolds in the mansion built by the Alban family at the turn of the 20th century, after they made their fortune in shipping.

The local university is giving tours of the home now, but the Alban family still lives there and continues to wield influence in the community.

When Grace Alban’s mother, Adele, dies, Grace is forced to return to the family home for the first time since the tragic death of her father 20 years earlier.

Her daughter Amity has visited almost every summer, but Grace has stayed away, hiding from painful memories. Settling her mother’s estate, Grace finds a packet of letters that challenges everything she knew about her family’s history.

Grace’s search for the truth about her family leads her through hidden passageways  into secret vaults at the church and seems to awaken ghosts  that have been living in the walls of this old house since Aunt Mercy died and left her twin sister Faith behind in 1935. Even Adele’s death due to a heart problem suddenly doesn’t seem so ordinary, and Grace begins to wonder if there was something supernatural at work the day her mother died.

Wendy Webb is a new author. This is only her second published novel, and it does have a few weaknesses, like an overload of plot twists that she has trouble wrapping up. But still she is a great storyteller and kept me interested up to the very last page.

Like most good books I read, this one reminded me of some others I have recommended to friends. If you love eerie novels about haunted houses try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. If  family secrets and finding the truth are more your interest I highly recommend Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Carol Luers EymanNot until they were past 90 did Roz Chast’s parents admit they were aging. (Of course, all of us are aging all the time, but hey, can’t we talk about something more pleasant?)

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is available from the library in hardcover.

Chast, a New Yorker cartoonist and an only child, was herself guilty of postponing discussion of wills (living and dead), finances, and powers of attorney with her parents. When she finally introduced the topics, her parents’ response gave her the title of her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

She tells the story of her parents’ decline in her characteristic cartoon style, with wobbly line drawings whose characters exude neuroses.

Interspersed are pages of handwritten text, which makes the story feel more personal than the typeset font you’d find in a traditional memoir. A small set of photos documents the clutter she finds when she visits her parents “in their natural habitat” for the first time in 11 years. (One, showing three pairs of her mother’s old glasses, is particularly touching.)

She attempts to exculpate herself for neglecting to visit by describing their neighborhood:

“Not Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or even Carroll Gardens. Not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made–and bought–$8.00 chocolate bars. This was DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone.”

But she redeems herself by jumping into their lives with a level  of commitment familiar to any middle-aged adult whose parents are reaching the end of life.

The stories are familiar: her mother spends two weeks in the hospital with acute diverticulitis, returns home, insists on making breakfast for her husband the next morning, and takes a severe fall. When Chast decides it’s time to move them to a “Place” where they can get nursing assistance, they resist.

Particularly refreshing is Chast’s willingness to talk about the financial anxiety she experiences as their savings are deleted, not just by the sky-high rent at their  “Place” but also by the extras: full-time nursing assistance and hospice, not to mention the adult diapers, Ensure, and other supplies none of us want to acknowledge we may need ourselves one day.

Illness and death may not seem appropriate fodder for cartoons, but Chast masterfully renders scenes that are poignant, irritating, dramatic, as well as amusing, in a book you will consume in just two or three sittings.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

A corrupt cult controlling Calcutta

Loren RossonThe Kali cult depicted by Dan Simmons in Song of Kali is foul beyond words. (Forget the cartoonish portrayal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)

"Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons is available from the library in paperback.

“Song of Kali” by Dan Simmons is available from the library in paperback.

The Kāpālikas run Calcutta like the Mafia runs American cities. Businessmen by day, killers by night, they sacrifice people (including their own members) to make their goddess manifest on earth. Their evil seems to have somehow infected the stones and air of Calcutta; pain and hurt are the only language people understand.

The story is vile and depressing, but in an understated way that makes everything seem too real to be fictitious. There are no cheap thrills or victories against the Kali cult; no one is brought to justice; the cult goes on; the city of Calcutta sweats poverty, despair, and anger in endless cycles.

The story involves a magazine writer who is sent to Calcutta to obtain poetry supposedly written by a man who was thought to be long dead. He takes his wife and infant child (bad move) and becomes entangled with a gruesome cult that wields ugly power, apparently both natural and supernatural.

The writer is from my home state of New Hampshire, and some of his third-world encounters mirror my own in Africa. I was surprised by how strongly I identified with him, though of course I never ran afoul of anything like the cult of Kali.

Simmons is known for writing in many genres, and we have most of his books in the library collection. Only recently did I realize that we had never acquired this, his first novel. It’s in our collection now.

I consider Song of Kali the best thing Simmons ever wrote. Critics say that first novels often show authors at their most honest, writing without regard for anyone’s expectations, and this one fits that profile.

If you’re a horror guru who is hard to please–if you’re craving that rare novel that freaks you out in a completely new way–then I would strongly recommend Song of Kali.

 

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Got time?

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“The Time Keeper” by Mitch Albom is available from the library in hardcover, large print, and downloadable audiobook.

Inga Dellea-MessnerIn Mitch Albom’s novel The Time Keeper, three wayward souls learn the meaning of time through great trial, and greater error.

Dor–Father Time–discovers its existence and is the first to measure it. But when his wife is dying, rather than spend those last moments at her side, he goes off to find her more time to live.

For that, God banishes him to a cave, where he is forced to hear all mankind’s pleas for more time, less time, freeze time, save time, and he must learn to understand the plight he has wrought.

Among the pleas are those of Sarah Lemon and Victor Delamonte.

Sarah wants less time, ruing her own life when her heart is broken. Can’t it all just end? Victor rails against his own imminent end. Both are ready to go to extreme lengths to end or extend what time they have. Dor’s mission is to save them from their misguided urges. In the process, will he grasp the true meaning of his own discovery?

Don’t make Dor’s mistakes. For one day, tally how often you look at your watch. I doubt you will be surprised to discover that life is full of an insane amount of hustle and bustle, appointments and racing around to do goodness knows what. Anything worthwhile? In modern society, we micromanage every minute.

After taking your tally, ask yourself what percent of those tallies signaled some activity you’re actually glad you did. How many brought you any satisfaction, and how many of them will you even remember tomorrow? How much of your day consisted of you making the best of your time, rather than trying to cram as much into an hour as you possibly could?

Read this book, and you might just grow to accept what it is to get old, to truly live out your days and accept an allotted number of them.

 

About Inga Dellea-Messner

Library Assistant Inga Dellea-Messner grew up in Windham and Hudson. She worked at the Rodgers Memorial Library for seven years before becoming a library assistant at the Nashua Public Library. On her way to earning her bachelor’s degree from Keene State, she spent five months studying French in Bretagne (Brittany).