A Death in the Family

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James Agee, 1938

“When grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal. Mary had, during these breathing spells, drawn a kind of solace from the recurrent thought: at least I am enduring it. I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought.” (278)

Many would label this book ‘depressing’ but I would argue that this is a beautiful novel. This book approaches a reality – an inevitability of life: that death comes to all – with a purity of voice that is simply captivating.

There is no better way to say it: this is a beautiful book.

The plot is fairly simple. Jay Follet, a young man in his 30’s and a father of 2 in Knoxville Tennessee of the early 20th century suddenly dies in the middle of the night in a fatal car accident. The first half of the novel builds up Jay’s relationship to his family with charming gestures such as making the sheets for his wife as she cooks him breakfast, an evening spent alone with his young son, and his thoughts about his drunk brother’s desperate need for his assistance alongside their father’s ailing health. The second half of the novel explores the shock of his death upon his wife and her supportive family as well as his children’s struggle to understand that their father is not  coming home tonight, or tomorrow, or ever.

Plot alone doesn’t make a book important, or beautiful, or worth reading. What makes this book significant is its ability to speak with an honesty that transcends the purpose of plot.

Jay’s wife Mary, a religious woman, is encouraged by her brother, aunt, and parents to drink whiskey through the night to settle her shock. She would rather her aunt stay the night with her than her mother due to the ridiculousness of explaining herself to her nearly deaf mother. Mary’s children, Rufus and Catherine, must learn of their father’s death from their hungover mother who is unable to get out of bed to make them breakfast. Rufus is pleased to learn that he is not expected to go to school that day, however staying at home, the stir-crazy children struggle with understanding their father’s demise and quarrel as children do. Rufus is unable to stay at home and finds himself wandering the streets along the way to the school he is not expected to enter. In speaking with his classmates, he feels that his father’s death will give him power over the bullies that have teased him, but his power is deflated as he learns that the parents of the bullies have assumed that his father’s accident was a result of careless drunken driving. All of Mary’s family use religion as a vehicle of expressing hope to one another, but internally they all express their doubts in the goodness or even existence of God or in a possibility of purpose behind the unexpected death of the man they loved.

The novel explores these themes through narrative that flows from each character’s perspective, actions, and thoughts with an attentive purity of voice. The children look up to the adults for guidance and the adults look within themselves for strength. Life isn’t expressed more simply and purposefully than that.

Before the ominous death ever occurred, I was drawn into the book’s introductory pages that describe an outing of the father Jay with his son Rufus. The two go to a Charlie Chaplin silent film and the description of the film’s actions is nearly breathtaking (Agee was a film critic of his time), but what really captivated me was the description of the young son and father sitting outside, away from home after the movie but not quite ready to go home. Jay was simply sitting and taking in the moment of late evening calm, but Rufus looks up to his father, searching for meaning:

“He felt that although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of his family could help; that it even increased his loneliness, or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well.” (18-19)

Passages such as this are the essence of this book: each of the character looks toward their loved ones with a searching hope for understanding the other, a hope to understand the love that bonds them. The loss of the father impacts them all, but their relationship to one another is what gives them purpose, gives them hope.

It is said that this is a semi-autobiographical book, as Agee’s father had died in a car accident when he was a young boy. Some readers may find that important, but for me this book is simply important because it is a beautiful character study of life, survival, and relationship.

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The Vorrh

download (1)B. Catling, 2015

Unlike anything I’ve read before, The Vorrh is best described as a postmodern fantasy novel. This is an ambitious and artful prosaic blend of multiple characters, perspectives, and timelines written with an originality that is at once confusing, bewildering, and beautifully enlightening with a totally unique and inspiring voice.

My praise is hard-earned.

When I began this book, I was quickly disappointed by what appeared to be a jumbled mess of unrelated characters and inconsistent narrative tangents. In other words, my first impression in the first 50-70 pages of The Vorrh was that this was nothing more than a piece of crap that wasn’t worth my time. Since I’m discerning in my reading tastes before ever beginning a book, I am a fairly patient reader able to give most books that I dislike a chance to grow on me and help me discover why I was initially drawn to its text. Considering this: a book that I begin must be completely atrocious in order for me to abandon it unfinished, yet after beginning The Vorrh I was closer to abandoning this book than any other I can recall.

The book began with a prologue describing a man apparently committing suicide in a bathtub and then jumped into what was a completely unrelated yet graphic description of a hunter crafting a bow from the skeletal and muscular remains of dead but mystical woman. The hunter is being hunted by an aboriginal bounty hunter within the heart of the mystical forest called the Vorrh. From here there is a disjointed introduction of a young cyclops living in the basement of an aristocratic home and raised by robotic puppets. And then the book jumps from the oddly unrelated narrative of the cyclops back into the heart of the Vorrh, describing an unnamed Frenchman who aims to be the first man to cross through the forest guided by a spiritual shaman. All of this jumble was starting to get on my nerves because it promised directionless nonsense.

Just as I about to give The Vorrh the quits, I was captivated by the introduction of the real-to-life photographer Edward Muggeridge who “was a hollow man. Born that way. A camera without an aperture” (63).  Muggeridge, also named Muybridge, seemed to have nothing to do with the Vorrh and its fantastical world of mystical forests, living archery bows, cyclops, and robot-puppets. That disassociation from the novel’s namesake forest is what oddly drew me into the temptations of The Vorrh as Muybridge’s story took place in the apparent real world of 19th century American exploration, far away from the mystical pseudo-colonial European/African fantastic vision of the forest. Muybridge represented a real man with real problems of self identity and purpose.  His problems of identity are satisfied as he finds purpose in the photography of the American west. It wasn’t just his story that drew me in, it was the richness of the prose that described the scientific development of the art of photography with an air of mystical poeticism that bridged the fantastical of the earlier stories with the realism of his stories:

“He was very different. It was said that he was hunting stillness and that instead of picks or shovels, guns or maps, he carried an empty box on his back, a box with a single eye, which ate time. Some said he carries plates of glass to serve the stillness on. He would eat with a black cloth over his head, licking his plate clean in the dark.” (71)

That description of “hunting stillness” tied him to the hunter with the bow, the “guns or maps” tied him to the Frenchman exploring the forest of the Vorrh, and the “single eye” tied him to the cyclops.  Suddenly, with the introduction of the late 19th century history of the development of photographic arts, the thematic vision of The Vorrh began to come to focus. This wasn’t just a book of purposeless narrative. It had a greater vision that was realized using imagery of the dichotomy of reality and photographic negatives. The Vorrh sought to explore the rich dichotomies of bilateral themes of colonialism and traditionalism, civilization and the wild, science and spirituality, technology and agrarian-mysticism, destiny and circumstance.

With further reading, the earlier disjointed stories began to grow in richness and significance as their themes were flushed out with increasing clarity. As the mystical power of the forest The Vorrh revealed itself as a place that erased the memory of the travelers who entered its area seeking either the riches of its resources or the revelatory promises of its spiritual heart, it became apparent that the mystical forest was a metaphor for the conflicting promises of the dichotomies of power. Be it a conflict of science versus spirituality or colonialism versus traditionalism, or the natural versus the constructed; all is at risk of being forgotten in the blend of time and place, narrative and understanding.

The many disjointed timelines and stories that make up The Vorrh don’t ever come together in a concise package, but that is the postmodern significance of this story. The world, even the fantastical world, is a complicated place with dichotomous and diverging perspectives that both defines and disappoints standard expectations.

“Rumors tend to spread like ripples, circular waves moving out from a point of incident. In cities, they stop for a moment when they reach the outer walls, especially when the city in question is circular. Against those arcs of fact and protection, they are questioned, the hard litmus of stone, straw, and lime interrogating their origin and validity, in the same way as those who camp outside, dreaming of entrance and stability, are made to prove their origins. If the story stands, it is filtered to the outside world in muted or fragmented form.” (259)

What started as a book that I hated blossomed into a book that I loved. The Vorrh is truly original. There is a richness of prose that drives the novel along and the criss-crossing plots each culminate with an individual climatic summaries. With that said, this isn’t a perfect book. Even though I forgave its originally foggy start in favor of beautifully crafted prose and engaging narrative development, it is hard to forgive the chauvinistic narration that includes many female characters but fails to allow any one of them to be the master of her own destiny. The bow is a woman turned object only powerful in the hands of a man, the cyclops gifts vision to a blind woman through copulation during a carnival of masks, and the cyclops also “mates” and impregnates his former friend and protectress. The wives of the Frenchman and several other characters each act as background setting to a larger narrative vision and the most complicated and likable character, Muybridge, is both disgusted and appalled by women as though he is a victim to their desires since his wife had cheated on him and he is later raped by a crazed slave-woman who was the subject of his photographic experimentation.

Never once in the story is it possible that a female character is offered the possibility beyond objective focus. B. Catling additionally invests a considerable amount of descriptive attention to phallic obsessions and violent copulations. I realize that the sexualization and objectification of woman is part of the canon of fantasy writing and that they exist here within the pages of The Vorrh to tie this book to that cannon of the fantasy style. I mention this as a weakness of The Vorrh because it risks damage to the universal appeal of a truly original and engaging novelistic vision. These errors do not fail the book for this reader, but they may distract more sensitive readers from the larger themes explored in these pages.

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Ways of Going Home

17934556Alejandro Zambra, 2011
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.” (50)

Ways of Going Home was a nice little surprise of a book. Written in four parts, it starts out as a childhood recollection of a young boy’s interest in his classmate who asked him to spy on his neighbor.  The first-person narrative of the boyhood story had an engaging sense of mystery set against the backdrop of a true to life historical Chilean earthquake. That mystery is abruptly turned upside down as the second part abruptly reveals itself to be the written from the voice of the author of the first part. Set several years in the future, the author discusses his struggling relationship with his ex-wife and his desire to share his story with her.

“She asked me later, half-joking, if the characters stay together for the rest of their lives…”it’s never like that in good novels, but in bad novels anything is possible,”… afterward I tried to keep writing, I don’t know which direction to take. I don’t want to talk about innocence or guilt; I want nothing more than to illuminate some corners, the corners where we were.” (48)

The third part revisits the story of the boy as a grown adult as he rekindles a relationship with that same childhood girl and the fourth revisits the author’s voice. The novel’s blend of a novel within a novel and a voice of self-awareness allows a reflective perception upon the intentions of the text that explores ideas of identity and family relationships. The childhood story and the earthquake take place during the Pinochet-era Chile and the author’s story takes place in the more democratic present. The reflection on the past and how those experiences influence one’s views and opportunities is an consistent theme throughout the book:

“Now that I think about it, there was a time when everyone gave advice. When life consisted of giving and receiving advice. But then all of a sudden, no one wanted any more advice. It was too late, we’d fallen in love with failure, and the wounds were trophies just like when we were kids, after we’d been playing under the trees. But Rodrigo gives advice. And he listens to it, asks for it. He’s in love with failure, but he’s also, still, in love with old and noble kinds of friendship.”  (54)

The fluid transition from a fictional perspective of a historical reality to authorial awareness and back to fiction allows the novel to achieve a blended sense of light somberness that questions universal ideas that extend beyond the Chilean history that sets the backdrop for the multi-perspectives of the book:

“Our story isn’t terrible. There was pain, and we’ll never forget that pain, but we also can’t forget the pain of others. Because we were protected, in the end; because there were others who suffered more, who suffer more.” (97)


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Signs Preceding the End of the World

21535546Yuri Herrera, 2009
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, 2015

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a special book. With brevity of page and word it manages to explore ideas and themes that most books 10 times its length only attempt to explore, and it does so with a compelling plot and a fascinating protagonist worth celebrating as an original and powerful heroine. It is up there in the unique family of books that compelled me to take a second look and reread to better savor the beauty of its prose and the diversity of themes that cover ideas of identity, culture, family, inheritance, mafia, the dangers and promises that inspire border-crossing, the complexities of race including cultural and racial stereotypes, the location of power, human relationships to technology, and most importantly, the significance of language and its relevance to all the ideas just mentioned.

This is a translated work and on my initial reading, the words used in the linguistic style of English-translation captivated me. I can only imagine the beauty of the original Spanish. In my reading, I recognized a compelling similarity to Cormac McCarthy’s unpuctuated, vaguely broken and sparse, poetic prose. Gone are the quotation mark. Conversations between characters flow across the page with only a Capitalization indicating the change in voice. And there are prosaic moments that stand out with a biblical voice revealing spiritually universal truths that apply to all. After my initial reading, I was pleased to read the translator’s note from Lisa Dillman who confessed that in translation she was inspired by McCarthy’s The Road as a voice of inspiration to express the tone of Herrera’s original Spanish text.

An example of the McCarthy-like prose is expressed here in the following passage describing the protagonist, Makina, awaking on a bus:

“Makina could never be sure of what she’d dreamed, in the same way that she couldn’t be sure a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there, but she had the feeling she’d dreamed of lost cities: literally, lost cities inside other lost cities, all ambulating over an impenetrable surface.” (32-33)

A moment of awaking from an unknown dream is transitioned into ideas of location and one’s connection to understanding and personal awareness. These ideas aren’t as macabre as McCarthy, but they are explored with the same succinctness of prose that captivate and enthrall the reader’s attention toward the significance buried in the ideas behind the words.

Aside from the similarities to McCarthy’s work, which work ideally for the setting of the Mexican/American border, what really stood out were the non-standard and unique words that Dillman used throughout the text. Most prominent was the word verse used to describe a sort of going from one place to another. Dillman explains that Hererra used the frequently used “neologism: jarchar…the word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit)” (112) and Dillman chose to use the word verse in its place because like jarchar it is a “noun-turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication,” (113). In so doing, Dillman manages to adeptly express the importance of language as a core aspect of both personal and cultural identity in the pages of Signs Preceding the End of the World.

This is the story of a confident, street-smart, and headstrong woman who choses to cross the Mexican-American border to seek out her brother who left for America some time prior. Her brother left in search of the fortunes promised by a supposed mafia deal, but Makina, the heroine, is crossing only to find her brother and discover his fate. In that crossing she is faced with challenges, her life and safety is often at risk, and she is constantly bargaining to find her way. Through all of this, her connection to language, her ability to cross the border of her native and the “anglo” tongue, help directs her passage from one land to the next. Her awareness of the importance of language reveals truths that extend beyond her Mexican heritage or her “illegal” crossing into the “anglo” lands:

“Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, bye there they are, doing their damnedest.” (66)

This connection to language is most powerfully explored in a scene wherein Makina is rounded up with a group of fellow illegal immigrants by an overzealous police officer. The officer, hands on his pistol, discovers that one of the shocked immigrants is holding a book of poems. In his zeal, the cop attempts to humiliate the man by forcing him to write out a poem at gunpoint. In his fear the man cannot write, but Makina snatches the book and writes a powerful poem in English for the cop, who on reading it, loses the strength and confidence in his actions as his confident voice is reduced to a whimpering whisper that causes him to stumble away, his power lost by Makina’s written word.

In many moments such as these Signs Preceding the End of the World convincingly uses language to explore complex ideas. One such idea is the relation of identity as relevant to time and an individual’s intended commitment to location. As she embarks upon her journey, Makina is committed to return to her home, however she isn’t sure that her brother will return with her since time and distance will have changed his relation to his home, heritage, and the identity that he left behind. He has been gone too long to capably return to his former home and remain the same person he was when he left:

“at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.” (20)

And ultimately, Makina also learns that she is unable to return to her land, her home, for in her crossing she is changed and no longer the same person. The “end of the world” is ultimately a transition from one’s past identity into a new identity, as Makina finds that she is “with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned she whispered” (106). The old has ended, the new is made into something unrecognizable, and all is transitory.

“When she’d reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world – some countries, some people – could seem eternal when everything was like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment but also a slight subsiding of the fear that had been building since she versed from home.” (55)

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God’s Hotel

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A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

Victoria Sweet, 2012

Laguna Honda Hospital is a unique part of the San Francisco healthcare system. Many of the most difficult and challenging psychosocial patients that come to my unit at UCSF are Laguna Honda residents. Being residents at a hospital may sound like an odd term, but Laguna Honda serves as a longterm care facility for the poor and chronically ill and its patients can stay there for many months or even years and therefore earn the “resident” status. The hospital does not have an Emergency Department and if the patient-residents develop new complications they must be transported to one of the city’s medical centers such as UCSF or SFGH for an advanced diagnostic workup. Despite these limitations, Laguna Honda is capable of maintaining and delivering complex medical regimens such as IV therapy and being a hospital it can deliver care that many skilled nursing facilities cannot. It is a public funded non-profit facility that serves the community of San Francisco. Speaking from my role in the medical field, I am extremely grateful that Laguna Honda exists because there are many patients we send there to where I do not know where else they could go if Laguna Honda wasn’t an option.

images (2)Since Laguna Honda is located just up the hill from me, I drive and bike by the hospital all the time. However, in the 10 years I’ve lived in San Francisco I’ve only been inside Laguna Honda once. This was in 2010 when I was a student nurse doing an internship at an SRO in the Tenderloin. One of the SRO residents was at Laguna Honda due to his kidney failure and the SRO’s onsite nurse was asked to participate in a goals of care meeting with the Laguna Honda staff. I was able to tag along as a learning opportunity and I was impressed at the collaboration of Laguna Honda’s inpatient medical, nursing, and social work staff’s dedication to work with their patient’s outpatient nurse and case manager to develop a plan to work with this patient and facilitate a safe and feasible discharge from the hospital back to the SRO.

During my visit, the nurse I was working with gave me a brief tour of the Laguna Honda facility and although I was impressed by the dedication of the staff, I was less than impressed by the facility. This was the century old Laguna Honda facility and not the current, modern, new facility that is open today but was under construction when I was at Laguna Honda in 2010. The patient wards were mid-century style, with at least 18 or more beds in one unit with curtains being the only separation of privacy in the larger ward. The windows were small and everything had an worn down, old feeling to it. It hardly inspired optimism and seemed kind of depressing to me. As I have mentioned, Laguna Honda has since been remodeled and apparently the new facility has private or semi-private rooms and has done away with the larger multi-patient ward style of care.

download (4)So, having a little bit of appreciation and a little bit of leeriness towards Laguna Honda, I was excited to read Victoria Sweet’s memoir God’s Hotel (an account about one physician’s time working at Laguna Honda) as an opportunity to learn more about this facility that serves such a unique function in the San Francisco community. Sweet has worked at Laguna Honda for over 20 years, starting off as a part time physician in the admitting ward and then she  moved on to spend several years in both the dementia ward and the complex medical ward. Sweet writes with a lot of nostalgia for the old Laguna Honda and its rag-tag style of “slow-medicine” that was off the radar of the joint commission for many years and allowed its patients to leave the grounds to smoke, promoted the patients and physical therapists to participate in gardening together, and even had a chicken wandering the halls of the AIDS ward. None of these activities meet the modern model of efficient medicine and as Laguna Honda was faced with several inspections and lawsuits, it was forced to modernize its facility and modify its healthcare model by reducing the patient population and promote discharge to the community. Sweet writes of these changes with begrudging, disappointed judgement towards the changes enforced upon Laguna Honda.

As a book I found God’s Hotel to be a disappointing read and a lot of the excitement I had at the start of opening its pages was quickly deflated as I discovered that this book was less a chronicle about Laguna Honda and more a memoir about this particular doctor’s time at Laguna Honda. During her early years at Laguna Honda Sweet was studying medieval medicine with a focus on the medical writings of the 12th century nun Hildegard with the goal of obtaining a doctorate in medical history. So, with this in mind, much of the book is written in a formulaic style that goes like this: a brief story about a patient and what Sweet learned from her diagnosis of the patient, a little discussion about the politics of Laguna Honda, and then a little discussion about her studies of Hildegard. It goes on and on like this and after Sweet gets her PhD in Hildegardian historical medicine she later replaces the discussion of her studies with discussion of a pilgrimage walk through France and Spain that she embarked upon in sections over 4 years; but the formulaic style is pretty much the same. The way she speaks about the patients and how they offered her something to learn from was annoying. I’m sure that Sweet is a very giving and compassionate person, one has to be in order to work with the Laguna Honda population for such an extensive period of time, but her style of writing was less compassionate than I’m sure she intended and came off as somewhat dishonest and self-centered as it is consistently celebrating what the patients teach her about her approach to medicine and rarely speaks of what many of us feel, frustrations with the patient’s choices or the inevitability of their poor prognosis. As an example, take this following passage about how great Sweet feels about herself after getting a present for her patient for Christmas:

“When I woke up that Christmas, the first thing I thought about was Paul getting his vest. I hope he liked it and I hoped it fit. And I couldn’t help notice the pleasure I was getting out him and that vest. It didn’t seem quite right, somehow, but there it was. This got me thinking about charity – its motivations, its emotions, and how, after hospitality and community, charity was the third principle of Laguna Honda.” (255)

Such writing is overly nostalgic and feels trite. Furthermore, this book greatly desired an editor to clean up the mess that it is. In discussing medical diagnosis and medical equipment, Sweet repeats herself over and over again within the same pages, completely unaware that she had just said the same exact thing a few paragraphs earlier. Additionally, her excessive desire to remove any culpability in her writing was annoying. Of course I understand that the names of patients must be redacted for HIPPA compliance, but she applied the same level of anonymity to the extreme, referring to the “county hospital” and the “city’s university hospital,” which I immediately recognized as SFGH and UCSF and she even goes so far as to make the mayor anonymous, simply referring to Gavin Newsom as the “outgoing mayor” and Ed Lee as the “incoming mayor with the baby face.” This level of blanket anonymity gave the book a sense of over cautious CYA out of fear of discrediting anyone or any institution she disagreed with. And it only gets worse as she refers to the light-rail MUNI train as a “trolley,” which totally frustrated me because no one in San Francisco would ever refer to the MUNI as a trolley and I had no idea why she chose to use this word over and over again.

On top of her annoying writing style, Sweet chose some odd moments to unconsciously display some racist undertones in her descriptions of the hospital staff. It is an undeniable fact that many of the healthcare workers in the Bay Area are of Filipino heritage, but Sweet writes about Filipino nurses as though they are animals and not partners in the providing care for her patients, as depicted in the following:

“Allen, our male nurse, was the peacock of the staff…Allen was a peacock in the way that all male Filipino nurses played peacock to the reserved peahens of the female Filipina nurses.” (241)

The above passage is totally belittling and embarrassing to read. The passage below is even more embarrassing as a depiction of a conversation between Sweet and Rose, the Chinese janitor cleaning her office:

“Her face lit up, “Ah, Dr. S! Bird Gone! I clean floor now! And Window! And Walls!” She shook her head. “Bird not belong in hospital!”” (281)

Rarely does Sweet provide quotation of dialogue in her writing, but for some reason she felt it necessary to point out that her janitor has poor English in what she considers a cute way, with emphatic exclamation marks after each sentence and broken grammar. The inclusion of this brief dialogue was totally unnecessary and served no purpose other than to display Sweet’s discomfort with her Asian coworkers.

The overt use of anonymity, the odd racist moments, and the persistent usage of her patients as learning opportunities as opposed to human beings with needs, caused me to dislike Sweet as a narrator. And in being a dislikable narrator she failed to convince me that her nostalgia for the old Laguna Honda and her fear of the changes ongoing at the facility was the right perspective to believe. There were some quality moments in the book. I did enjoy her discussion of moments when she would simply listen to her patients and I really appreciated that it was her practice to go see her newly admitted patients and assess them firsthand before reading their charts because it would allow her assessment to be unbiased. I totally agree with her claim that many new doctors don’t know how to perform an adequate physical exam because their education is overly focused on reading lab values and CT scans. I find many of these criticisms of the practice of medicine to have some measure of truth and quality, however the overall message of the book was weighed down by many of the negatives aspects of her writing and unfortunately it failed to provide me with the insider’s insight into Laguna Honda that I was looking for in these pages.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

297673Junot Díaz, 2007

I feel that the title of this book is a little misleading. Much of this story isn’t focused on its main protagonist, Oscar, but focuses instead on his family lineage and their country of heritage, the Dominican Republic. I did like the book and feel that it is a well written and engaging generational story. However, the focus on Oscar (an awkward nerd who loves comic books and fantasy; traits that are unconventional for a young New Yorker of Dominican descent coming of age in the 1980s and 90’s) does feel like a slightly contrived postmodern narrative tool to tell the story of the 20th century Dominican Republic’s brutal history through the lens of an individual who vaguely resembles the stereotypical perception of a young Dominican man. There is a lot of talk within the pages about that stereotype – someone who would rather be a womanizing cat-caller.  Oscar is hardly a womanizer, and he is actually quite terrified of woman and would rather plays Dungeons and Dragons, watch Akira over and over, and read Lord of the Rings hundreds of times as he imagines himself to be the next Tolkien writer.

Of course I completely recognize that my criticism may appear laced with prejudice about stereotypical expectations. But my problem isn’t that I expected, nor did I want this book to meet stereotypical expectations: that would be boring and that isn’t my point. I’m totally fine with Oscar not being a stereotypical Dominican man. I found him a likable character with well-defined and believable limitations that I can actually self-identity with. What makes me conflicted about this book is that much of its pages aren’t actually focused upon Oscar’s life, but upon his sister, his mother as a young woman, and his grandfather as a young father. Ultimately the stories of Oscar’s family are used to provide a backdrop to tell the story of Dominican Republic’s terrible and merciless dictator, Trujillo. The many references to Trujillo and his regime are told with heavy reliance on the lore of Lord of the Rings, often referring to Trujillo as Sauron and his henchman as his wringraiths or Nazgul. As a huge Lord of the Rings, fan myself I originally found these geeky similes as cute, but as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that Díaz is a little too over reliant upon them and they started to get tiring and distracting.

A good dose of criticism is a good thing, but I hope that I’m not painting an overly negative perspective of this book. Overall, it is a satisfying read and is a unique story. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic or even the history of any culture within the Caribbean besides Cuba is pretty limited. I had heard a little about Trujillo’s terrible brutality in the pages of Jared Diamond’s Collapse but that view was a brief mention that compares the differences between neighboring Haiti and the D.R. during Trujillo’s regime. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao provides a narrative portrayal of the impact of Trujillo’s regime upon a single family. I simply wish the book didn’t pretend to be about Oscar, had a different title, and was more confident in its narrative focus on the D.R. history and the impact that that history has upon a single family. The book does these tasks well, but in hiding behind the supposed story of Oscar’s life it doesn’t reach the fullness of its narrative potential.

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download (1)Gene Luen Yang, 2013

Saints is the second part to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novels: Boxers & Saints, an imagined retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1901. While Boxers tells the story from the perspective of one of the leaders of the rebellion, Saints imagines the perspective of a Christian convert who suffers through the conquest of the Boxer Rebellion. Raised in a harsh and unloving family that doesn’t even name her, Four-girl finds solace and belonging in the Christian community, taking the name Vibiana after her baptism. Her blood family disowns her and Vibiana leaves her home to work the simple life as a catechumen, teaching orphans and  learning the ways of the foreign belief system.

download (2)Both novels include an element of spiritual imagining: the Boxers were guided by the the ancestral gods of war to give them strength and in Saints the heroine Vibiana is guided by visitations from the spirit of Joan of Arc. The use of Joan of Arc works well as a narrative tool, as a young woman who fought to defend her native France from the invading English, Vibiana self-identifies with Joan’s struggle. However, Joan’s military background creates some confusion for Vibiana as she believes that she is called to fight the Boxers but later comes to realize that her Christian community is the force of invasion within her native China. Vibiana originally was drawn toward Christianity because her family had deemed her a devil and the “foreign-devils” offered her an opportunity to redefine herself within their community, however as a young girl she vaguely understood the Christian message of peace and community. Ultimately, through maturity molded by adversity Vibiana comes to realize her place is truly within the Christian community as she chooses to make tough sacrifices as the Boxers attack her community.

imagesHaving read both Boxers & Saints in a short period, I really appreciate the dual perspective portrayed in both stories. However, of the two books, Boxers was more enjoyable and well rounded as a stand-alone novel. Saints definitely felt as though it relied a lot upon what was already set up in the much larger vision of Boxers. Additionally, Boxers gives away the ending Saints since both main characters interact within the pages of both books. Saints would have been a stronger story if it wasn’t the story of a character within the pages of Boxers but simply the story of a Chinese Christian convert from the same era. The two books together do provide a unique perspective on a slice of history that is not often explored within American culture and for that they are both valuable and enjoyable reads.

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