In Orbit too Close to a Star

Our culture celebrates accomplished people, especially accomplished creative artists.  This means many celebrities have more of a “fish-bowl” kind of existence than a personal life and they often require a small army of helpers to meet all of their personal and professional obligations.  These Assistants can start out as an artist’s devoted fans or followers but their work and the trust of their employer gives them a view behind the curtain others don’t get to see: they know the artist on and off stage, see the creative person as well as his/her public persona.  Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage is explored in Lynn Cullen’s novel, Twain’s End.
The book is a fictionalization of a real drama that occurred during the last year of Samuel Clemens’s (aka Mark Twain’s) life.  Over the previous decade, the person who managed his correspondence and everyday responsibilities was a woman named Isabel Lyon.  The writer relied on his secretary so much that Clemens had given her a house close his own and a bedroom in his estate, Stormfield.  When Miss Lyon married the writer’s business manager in 1909, Mr. Clemens attended their wedding but before the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, Clemens had fired both of them, on grounds of embezzlement.
Now, this wouldn’t have been more than a blip on the radar of Mark Twain scholars if the story had stopped there.  Instead, Clemens then effectively sued his former secretary and forced her to return the  house he had deeded to her years before.  Still not content, he wrote to all their mutual friends, calling Isabel everything except a Child of God and turned more than four hundred pages of his mammoth autobiography (released in 2010) is a vicious attack on her character.  Isabel Lyon Ashcroft denied the charges of theft but never said anything against her former employer, even after his death.  Using Mark Twain’s papers and Ms. Lyon’s diaries, Lynn Cullen constructs a compelling account of the complex relationship between this celebrity and his assistant that shows what happens when the boundaries between personal and professional relationships crumble.

What happens to celebrated personalities once declining health limits access to their adoring public?  If your guide is the biographies of Twain and Dickens, it seems that the drama and applause the performer craves must be re-created in their homes, either by their nearest and dearest (whose ties are to the real person rather than the performing alter-ego) or by assistants and hand-picked fans and unhealthy rivalries develop between the chosen.  Ms. Cullen’s novel suggests that something like this rivalry also occurred in life of Helen Keller, a Twain fan and celebrated personality herself.  Miss Keller’s teacher and constant companion, Annie Sullivan married a man who became attracted to her student and a unhealthy rivalry developed between the two woman as well as the husband and wife. In the end, Miss Sullivan’s marriage broke from the stress of the twin rivalries. 

Lynn Cullen
It is the rivalries that steer the tension in Twain’s End, and the need of isolated souls that keeps the reader coming back for more.   In the end, Miss Cullen’s novel transforms the caricatures of famous celebrities back into the people they were before public personas smothered the nuance and subtlety of their human creators.  Behind the performing mask that the public sees is a complex and often fearful human being and humanity can be very appealing.  In the end, that humanity may be what keeps some assistants in orbit around  their stars.

The novel, Twain’s End, by Lynn Cullen will be released on October 13, 2015.  I am very grateful to Net Galley for releasing a pre-publication copy to me for this review.  LLG

The Tales of Autumn

Fall is unequivocally here, on the calendar and in the air.  Daytime highs are comfortably lower, nights are longer and the primary religion here has changed to college football.  The leaves are just beginning to turn and fall but there are some early spots of color.  Everything is changing along with the books we’re choosing – there’s nothing quite like autumn reading.

Perhaps it comes from the years we all spent in school, but autumn is the season when we reach for meaningful books, for stories that bring something with them besides primary characters and plot.  History, both fictional and non-fiction, become more relevant in this season since autumn reminds us that time is passing.  A new generation is starting school, while another has reached maturity and still another is passing on.  After a summer of living in the moment, fall is a good time to reflect on life and to find your place in the scheme of things.  

That doesn’t mean autumn tales are lacking in story.  The greatest holiday for stories, Halloween, is in the middle of fall and reams of words surround it.  Everything about Halloween stirs the imagination from elaborate costumes (Come As You’re Not Parties)…

 

 …to the belief that a point of the earth’s orbit thins the membrane between life and death until it becomes permeable.   All kinds of things can happen in the world like that and there are stories for every possibility.  There’s a reason so many writers love Halloween.  It’s a holiday composed of memory and imagination.
 

More than anything, autumn is a time of gathering in, for the harvest and for the soul, a time when an evening’s chill can make a good book and a warm fire the best company in the believable world.  Fall may not contain the same verve that drove spring and summer but there’s a generosity here that favors and enriches the season.  Here is the welcome of hearth and home and loving friends, real and in fiction.  Enjoy this gold-spangled season and the tales that it offers.  They are wondrous to behold.

Subversive Lit on the Orient Express

Teachers tell us  we have to study the classics in order to understand literary forms.  For tragedy, we look at the works of Shakespeare and the Greeks; for comedy, we read Wilde and Shaw.  Fantasy readers get acquainted with Tolkein and SF fans get a background of Verne, Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke before moving on to the contemporary writers.   All of this sounds like a waste of time to the student who equates “classic” with “boring” and confuses “subversive literature” with subversive political groups.  The truth is that stories earn the “classic” distinction when they are so brilliant and memorable that they are enjoyed and understood by generations of people, and the purpose of subversive fiction is to persuade readers to rethink their assumptions.  Combine those two concepts and you’ll find Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.  No “who-dun-it” has more twists in the tale.
A bit of background for this classic “closed door” mystery, for anyone who needs it.  The brilliant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot is traveling from Istanbul to London on the fabulous Orient Express, a luxury passenger train service.  On the morning after the train is stalled by a snow drift, the passenger berthed next door to Poirot is found stabbed to death.   Poirot is asked by the train director he’s traveling with to find the murderer before the local police arrive so the innocent passengers can complete their journey without further delay.    Poirot has to remove the few  legitimate clues from a stack of red herrings left behind to determine the improbable truth behind the murder.
Because the door of of the victim’s berth’s was locked from the inside and the berth’s window is open, it looks like the perpetrator left the train after the crime.  The undisturbed snow around the train proves the murderer is still on board.   The passengers whose berths were in the same car as the victim are from various nations and a comparison of their statements shows almost all have alibis.  These factors would have the average reader making erroneous deductions or concluding the crime is “unsolvable”. That conclusion (and every expectation) is incorrect.
When most people learn someone has been killed, they automatically sympathize with the deceased.  When they hear the victim died after enduring a dozen stab wounds, the sympathy factor increases.  Poirot subverts that assumption immediately when he identifies the murdered man as a kidnapper responsible for multiple deaths and the ruin of several lives.  The kidnapper escaped justice through legal technicalities and lived under an assumed name on money he extorted from parents.  (Much of Murder on the Orient Express was influenced by the kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s child, including the suicide of the baby’s nurse.)  
  
An ordinary reader would look at a train car full of suspects, from different nations and backgrounds, and see a car full of strangers, some of whom should be cleared as suspects.  Poirot upends this vision by seeing the same car full of people but never assumes this diverse group are all strangers.  Instead he asks himself the question “Where else would one find such a diverse collection of people?”  The answer to that question, and the identity of the victim drive Poirot to the solution and a decision on what to tell government authorities, as this assumption is subverted as well.
http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/agathachristie/images/0/09/Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_First_Edition_Cover_1934_(1).jpg/revision/latest?cb=20130622132529
1rst UK edition
More than eighty years have passed since Poirot made his first steps onto the pages of Murder on the Orient Express.  Since then, the story’s been printed in at least seven editions and been through an untold number of printings.  (Amazon offers it in 180 separate formats!) The story’s been adapted into a radio program, a video game,  two theatrical movies, a TV film and there’s another film adaptation in the works.  It’s been parodied and referred to so often that people with no interest in mysteries or Agatha Christie recognize the title and know the story packs a wallop.  Those who have read it understand the appeal: Christie’s mystery undercuts every expectation we have and the solution makes us glad we were wrong.   It’s a classic mystery and tale of subversion.

The Structure of a Story

People who read often get overwhelmed when they start to think about writing.   A complete book is the result of such a long, massive effort that most would-be writers get discouraged and quit long before they do a lot of sustained writing.  I understand that.  I never knew how or why successful authors developed the story-telling tempo that could pull me so completely into a book until one of my English professors gave me the low-down on pitch points and pinch points.  These are the spots in the plot that pull a story along and by using these as plot structure (not unlike poles in a circus tent) a writer can drape the line of whatever narrative he or she is writing and get the story-flow right.  Let me explain what they are.
Pitch points are the points in the story where circumstances cause the main character to change his or her usual pattern of responses which alters his or her ultimate destiny.  Pitch points come (roughly) at the quarter point, half-way mark and three-quarter point of the story.  Pinch points are when the protagonist (or the audience) gets reminded about how difficult it will be for the hero to prevail.  Pinch points occur at about the 3/8 ths and 5/8ths of the story.  There’s one more point I’ll talk about in a minute but first I want to give you an image and an example of the story tent:
I’ll admit I’m no artist but you can see the idea of where the points occur. Now let’s compare this tent to the plot of a rather famous book I and one of my nephews both love, The Hobbit.  At twenty-five percent of the way into the story, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves are about to face some nasty trolls.  Until the point, Bilbo has a passenger in his own adventure, swept along by dwarves and a wizard.  Here is the first time he acts.  Instead of crawling back to his companions with the warning “Trolls right in front of us, we should detour” the hobbit decides to live up to title of “burglar” he’s been given and tries to pick a pocket.  His idea doesn’t work out but he acts and that’s important.  At the half-way point, the dwarves are captured by giant spiders in the middle of Mirkwood Forest and Bilbo uses his courage and wits to rescue his friends.   BIG step.  Now we’re at the three-quarter point and where’s our Mr. Baggins?  Gone down a long scary tunnel, to parlay with a dragon, all by his lonesome.  In each incident, he does something he never would have dreamed of doing when the story began.  Now let’s talk pinch points, shall we?
Pinch points are when our hero is at his lowest.  The Hobbit’s first pinch point is in the beginning of Chapter Five.  Bilbo’s alone, in the dark, in a place he’s never seen before and he doesn’t know the way out.  Dwarves and wizard are all gone and there’s no one to rescue him.  Remember, this is before Bilbo had enough courage to rescue his friends.  This is the point where he must rescue himself and he has no idea on how to do that.  It’s a short little spot but it’s bad enough to pinch.
The second spot is a bit more elusive but it’s still there, with Bilbo astride a floating barrel on the river leading out of Mirkwood.  Anyone else would be thrilled to be away from the forest and free but here is where Bilbo gets his first sight of their ultimate destination, The Lonely Mountain, and it seems to be frowning at him.  All the previous adventures fall back into memory when Bilbo sees his “Big Bad” from a distance.  It’s a reminder of how far he still has to go.
You might think that’s all there is to story structure but I’ve saved a key point for last.   Take a look at the new story graph.
See that purple addition after the third pitch point?   That’s the eighty percent mark and the point of no return.  At this spot, something happens that makes the rest of the story a race to the climax.  In the final Harry Potter book, it’s when Voldemort realizes Harry’s been deliberately destroying his Horcruxes.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s when Jem and Scout walk to the Halloween pageant by themselves and in The Hobbit, it’s when Bilbo picks up the Arkenstone.  The Arkenstone is the heart of The Lonely Mountain’s treasure and it’s the only piece Thorin won’t part with.  By taking it, Bilbo sets up a conflict that will harden Thorin’s heart and help bring on the Battle of the Five Armies.  Once this happens, the rest is inevitable.
So how standardized is the formula?  It’s talked about in writing classes and it’s a good way to edit a story into shape.  I understand professional screenplays are actually calculated down to the page so pitch and pinch points can hit at the right places.  Pull out your favorite movie or book and calculate where the story is by looking at the percentages.  This story structure works.
So now you know the secret of story points: the pitch, the pinch and the one-of-no-return.  Is this cool or what?

The Education of an Educator

Summer is complete again, for all intents and purposes, and school is back in session.  People return to class schedules and assignments, semester projects and extracurricular activities and since school is such an important part of our lives, it’s not surprising that it serves as the setting for many books.  However,no story captured the American teacher’s perspective of that universe quite like Up the Down Staircase.  This “education of an educator” is more than fifty years old but in terms of what a teacher faces, it’s right on the mark.

Most employees have one impossible party to please (retail clerks must please the customers; professional people must please their clients; government pleases itself.) but first-year teacher, Sylvia Barrett, is at the mercy of everyone: there’s the MIA Principal who pontificates via memo but wields the power to end her career; the petty tyrant in administration who dispense policies by the metric ton, supplies with an eye-dropper and no mercy whatsoever; the janitor who responds to every request for maintenance with the reply “nobody’s down here” and the students, all-knowing, all needy and mostly adverse to the concept of education. Sylvia’s opportunities to teach must be sandwiched between episodes of classroom umpiring and responding to directives like this:
TO: ALL TEACHERS

Polio Consent slips are due in Health Office before 3 P.M. today. – School Nurse

Ridiculous memo aside (who would consent to Polio?) the School Nurse is one of the frustrated good in this book, a health-care professional who may not render the aid the students need and she’s qualified to give  because the School Board insists “a school nurse may not touch an injured student or administer treatment in any form”.  Instead, the nurse is limited to completing health care forms and offering cups of tea to students who need so much more from her.  Her cup of tea are a ludicrous offering until you realize it’s the only help she’s allowed to give.  If this sounds too outrageous to be fiction, there’s a reason why.
The novel’s author, Bel Kaufman knew all about this impossible world.  As the immigrant daughter of Russian Jews (her grandfather was the brilliant Sholom Aleichem) she learned to speak English at twelve  when she was put into a class of American first-graders.  She crammed 16 grades of education into the next 11 years, and earned a B. A. from Hunter College and a Masters in Literature from Columbia.  Nevertheless, she wasn’t allowed to be a “real” teacher for years.  The Educational Board in New York City that awarded teaching licenses questioned her ability to interpret poetry (Ms. Kaufman won this battle when she submitted a letter from the poet, verifying her interpretation was correct) and her accent during the Oral Examination portion of the of the tests. The Board refused to issue her a teaching license, although they still hired her to teach.

Kaufman at her desk

At that time, unlicensed teachers could be used for temporary assignments  and Bel worked in the system as a “permanent substitute” meaning she did the same classroom work as a tenured instructor (and more non-teaching duties) for lower wages in “less-advantaged” public schools.  Kaufman taught at the “challenging” inner-city schools, and, once licensed, in the city schools where educators pray they’ll find work. (They say she became the model for the English Instructor in the movie “Fame”.)  The public schools with their ridiculous directives and mini-fiefdoms (imagine a librarian who denies everyone access to the books) good and bad teachers and unforgettable students became grist for her novel composed of “found” material: bureaucratic directives, trashed essay drafts and notes from a teacher’s suggestion box.  It’s a brilliant format for storytelling.
After Up The Down Staircase spent more than a year on the best-seller’s list and was adapted into a movie and a play, Bel became a “teacher of teachers” by speaking at education conferences, but she never completely left the field of education.  At the age of 100, she was still teaching, by then at her alma mater, Hunter College.
The science of education has evolved since Bel’s time but the life of a teacher has not.   Any new instructor will find inspiring colleagues and educators unworthy of the title hiding in the faculty lounge as well as underachieving, troubled students and apple-polishers in every classroom.  If the front office contains a visionary, diligent headmaster, there’s bound to be a back-biting administrative type who prefers appearances to content  and bedevils the faculty with inane announcements and insane policies.  Our new teacher will bring his or her own problems, talents and skills to the mix and the school year will roll on but, with luck, most of the students will learn.  Despite all the policies, shortages and uninspired teaching, the students will learn and grow and when they leave, others will take their place.  A few  may even decide to come back as teachers themselves. The process is heartbreaking and sweet and as inevitable as the month of September.

The “Off Da Shelf” Book Nerd

This is how book friendships start: Two people meet in line at the bookstore or at some author’s appearance or on-line a book-friendly website and within twenty minutes they are best friends, comparing notes about favorite stories and characters like they’ve known each other for ages.  Paperbacks and contact info are traded and they walk off together like the last scene in Casablanca, saying “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Last December I met Mandy Shunnarah, storyteller, book-nut and bloggster extraordinaire (http://www.offthebeatenshelf.com/) and we’ve been friends ever since.  Mandy’s devotion to the printed word embraces all forms.  Her website and social media group (Off Da Beaten Shelf) gives a contemporary update to the old-school book discussion group while she’s works for her Masters in Library Science with a specialization in Archivist work.  The gal is in love with words.   I thought I’d introduce Mandy and get some background of this past and future “Book-Nerd.”

Me: How did your reader’s journey start? 

MS: Until I came along, my grandmother was really the only reader in the family. She loves Maeve Binchy with an undying passion and reads at least a book a week, yet somehow the reading gene didn’t get passed to my mom. When I was born, my grandmother decided she was going to make me a reader come hell or high water. She started reading to me so early that actually I don’t remember learning how to read. From my earliest memories I’ve just always been able to read. I wish I could remember more about that process of letters becoming words and words becoming sentences, but I’m also thankful that I can’t remember those dark days before I was able to practice my favorite hobby.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child? Do you still re-read any of them now?

MS: I remember being a big fan of the children’s book The Napping House by Audrey Wood and thinking it was the most hilarious story. I remember trying to recreate the tower of napping people and pets with my family, but this resulted in waking them up in the middle of the night, so they weren’t too pleased. Because I picked up reading so quickly and loved it so much, my grandmother kind of skipped from young children’s books to the young adult classics. For example, I remember reading Black Beauty a couple of times when I was 7 and 8. I don’t think I read an actual modern YA book until I was 11. I haven’t re-read any of the books I liked as a kid other than Harry Potter and I’m not sure I want to. I’m afraid I won’t like them as much as an adult and it’ll make the memory of reading them as a kid less dear to me.

Me: I think you may have coined the phrase “book-nerd.” For you, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion?

MS: I wish I’d coined book nerd! I borrowed it from some anonymous, enterprising young book lover before me.

Me: So, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion for you?

MS: For me, reading is an addiction, a religion, and the love of my life all paradoxically rolled into one. Reading is the one thing I’ve loved wholeheartedly throughout my entire life. You grow up, interests change, people change, the types of boys you fall for change, your taste in clothes changes–but through all the changes I’ve gone through in 25 years, reading has remained consistent and my love of books has only grown. Reading is the one thing I can’t NOT do. Like, if I was told reading was going to be outlawed tomorrow and all the books would be burned, I don’t think I’d live for much longer after that because I’d die of grief. To people who don’t understand what that’s like, they’d probably think I must live this horribly lonely life or the people in my life are insufficient, but that’s not it at all. You can have a wonderful, fulfilling life and still feel the call to worship a higher power, right? For me, that higher power is literature. When I’m reading beautiful sentences and all these complex emotions I’ve had for years have been beautifully articulated in a way that brings a tear to my eye, that’s a spiritual experience for me. That’s when I feel the closest to the universe and humanity. Being able to spin stories out of mere words and create entire worlds formed in the imagination is the triumph of human achievement in my book.

Mandy, The Story Girl

Me: The electronic format has turned the world of books upside down, from publishing to libraries and book clubs. How do you see this playing out? Any guesses about the future of libraries, etc.?

MS: I think the advent of electronic reading and digital audio-books has been the best thing for readers since we started binding books instead of reading scrolls. While I can sympathize with people who are staunchly anti e-reader to a degree, I think their fears about the downfall of society and literature at the hands of technology are misguided. The fact is that having additional choices of reading format doesn’t erase or negate the value of the pre- existing reading format. If you look at the numbers (which I do, intermittently), print books and eBooks are selling at about the same rate, so there are clearly people who still prefer print and the publishing market isn’t ignoring that. And as long as the people who love print keep buying books, the market won’t ever ignore them. If a reader is worried about the downfall of reading because of e-reading, tell them to speak with their dollars. I would be much more concerned if, 15 years ago when there were only print books, if publishers said, “Well, guys, it looks like the readers aren’t reading anymore, so let’s just call it quits.” But that’s not what happened. They said, “Hey, I bet people would read more if we give them more ways to do that,” and that’s what we’re seeing now. More books and audio-books are being published now than ever before in human history. All the reading materials that have come out in the last 10 years thanks to the capabilities the internet provides would eclipse every reading material that’s ever been made from all other eras combined. That doesn’t sound like the downfall of society to me. All that to say, if reading materials aren’t going anywhere, I don’t think publishing and libraries will either. They just may have to do things differently and try new things. For example, a lot of libraries are partnered with OverDrive, so their patrons can get eBooks and e-audio-books. Libraries are also renting out pre-filled e-readers and increasing their offerings via electronic database, so doing research is much easier. And libraries buy all these materials, so libraries are helping to keep the publishers in business. In short, the reading world isn’t ending and the kids are alright.

Me: A joyous part of literature comes from the joy of reading aloud. Do you have any favorites or memories of books being read out loud?

MS: Since I took to reading so quickly, I really only have one memory of being read aloud to after age 7. My family was headed to Gatlinburg for a long weekend during fall break one year when I was in high school. Over the break, we’d been instructed to read Of Mice and Men, and although it’s a short book, I didn’t particularly want to spend my vacation doing schoolwork. This had nothing to do with the fact that it was assigned reading because I tended to really like the books I was assigned, but rather because my family rarely went on vacation, so I wanted to savor it. The problem was that I get abysmally car sick and the only time I would’ve had to read without infringing upon my vacation was on the drive to and from Gatlinburg. So my grandmother, who does not get car sick, read Of Mice and Men to us the whole way there and back. It was so nice being read aloud to and just getting to relax. In truth, my grandmother reading me Of Mice and Men was my first audiobook!

Me: What are your favorite book related memories?

MS: I remember going to the library for the first time when I was 9 and being overcome with the sense of magic and endless possibilities on every shelf. I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement by reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 because my suburban, predominantly white public middle and high school didn’t think that was an important topic to cover.

I remember reading Stargirl when I was 10 and realizing that it’s totally okay to be the weird kid.

I remember having my Harry Potter books confiscated by my fourth grade teacher and elementary school principal because I went to a private, fundamentalist Baptist school where they thought Harry Potter was of the devil. I also remember me AND my mother ripping into them for taking my books away, so I got them back within a few days.

I remember all the evenings and weekends I spent at home reading because my over-protective mother wouldn’t let me have a normal social life–one of the side effects of being the only child of a single mother.

I remember the time my grandmother gave me $200 for my 15th birthday with the directive “Go buy some books.”

I remember a high school teacher shouting at me for reading Twilight because I finished my work so fast that she didn’t actually believe I’d done the work. I gave her the finger behind her back because she called it trashy reading.

I remember reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school and feeling like someone understood all the feral teenager feelings I was having.

I remember being inexorably depressed in college during the semesters when my English professors didn’t assign novels I ended up loving because it felt like I hadn’t really read at all. And when you’re taking 5 classes at 3 credit hours each and working 25 hours a week, you don’t have much time for pleasure reading, unfortunately.

But I also remember the semesters when my English professors assigned books I did end up loving and having that wonderful feeling of not being able to wait until I could do my homework.

I remember reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the college library and crying until my mascara ran down my face in the library lobby. Someone nodded knowingly and passed me a box of tissues.

I remember turning down no less than 3 friends’ invitations to fun Friday night plans so I could read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I adore my friends, but I made the right decision.

I’ve lived a thousand lives through books and I’ve learned something from every one of them.

Me: Imagine your literary godmother has just granted you this wish: you can have supper with five of your favorite literary characters or their creators. Tell me, who’s coming to dinner?

MS: Ooooh, this is a tough one! I would say…

1) Gabriel Garcia Marquez because he’s my favorite author and I’ve read more books by him than anyone else.

2) Hermione Granger because she’s my fictional twin sister.

3) Lydia Netzer, the author of Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,
because she’s just so quirky, funny, and smart all wrapped up in one. I think we’d be best friends.

4) Oscar Wilde. No explanation necessary.

5) Toni Morrison because she cuts open my heart and stuffs all sorts of emotions in just reading her work, so I can’t imagine what she’d do in person.

…and if any of those folks were otherwise occupied I’d add Harper Lee and Shakespeare as backups. You could say I’ve got a few questions for them that I need clarification on.!



Thank you Mandy for your contributions to readers everywhere!

The Disaster too close for Detachment

I’ve always been fascinated by disasters.  Be they sinking ships, fires or floods, I study the components of first class tragedies, fascinated by the chance occurrences and snap decisions that turn potential trouble into inevitable disaster.  Most of the books are about events that happened before I was born and although I find the accounts moving, they rarely infuriate me.   I marvel over the human acts of  bravery or foolhardiness or the intervention of sheer dumb luck but I see those events from the distance of historic perspective and I know the survivors went on. I didn’t watch those disasters unfold.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so many years to pick up Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, the history of HIV/AIDS in the USA during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Instead of reading about this disaster years after it happened, I watched this disease emerge into the collective consciousness. The prognosis at that time was awful and I purposely avoided the book until advanced treatment gave AIDS sufferers some hope for a decent life.  So much has changed in the last 30 years that I thought I could read this at last with detachment.  I was wrong. AIDS was and remains a hideous problem and, as Shilts points out in this excellent book, so much of the devastation was avoidable.

Mr. Shilts said he started writing this book after a famous journalist included a joke about the disease in his keynote speech at a professional function.  To him, the speaker’s callous attitude summed up the unspoken belief that the disease was “someone else’s” problem.  Because of the “not my problem” attitude, horrendous mistakes were made.

The symptoms first started showing up in gay men living in urban centers and although the mortality rate from the disease was high and its growth rate was exponential (159 reported U. S. cases in 1981; 771 in 1982 and more than 2800 in 1983), there wasn’t much about this in the main-stream press during that time, certainly not the way the 1976 Legionnaire’s outbreak (34 deaths) was covered or the Toxic Shock Syndrome issue (17 deaths) was reported in 1980.  Because it wasn’t reported much, the information didn’t get out and sick people couldn’t get needed help, public health officials couldn’t make their voices heard about needed policy changes and research to treat or cure the condition wasn’t being funded or done.

Without clear data about transmission, the gay community initially split over the issue: one faction thought AIDS was a health issue that demanded behavior modification; another section perceived modification as effort to return them to the closet.  By 1981, it was clear to medical experts that HIV/AIDS was transmitted through blood products, but blood banks didn’t start testing blood for the virus until 1985.  For a long time there was no test but that doesn’t excuse the blood banks knowing some of their supply was tainted and releasing it anyway. The uninformed patients received the disease with their transfusions and then passed it on to others.  When research on the cause of HIV began, multiple physicians claimed credit for identifying the underlying virus and while the egos fought for discoverer’s rights, people fell ill and died, most of them after long, lingering, terrible illnesses.

The book has its flaws and detractors.  Some survivors dispute Mr. Shilt’s portrait of Gaetan Dugas, the flight attendant linked to 40 of the first 248 cases. Post-publication research shows AIDS arrived in the U. S. before Mr. Dugas but the author never got this information; he died from AIDS before it was verified. What this book does do is successfully capture the years when the disease emerged and how so many tried to ignore it.

In 1985, the fear of AIDS banned a young Ryan White from his school and the acceptance of AIDS began when Rock Hudson admitted he had the disease.  Finally, AIDS was front-page news but the 159  cases in 1981 had grown to more than 15,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths.  Everyone knew something was wrong by then; I remember, because I was there.

I was one of those young, single women who danced in the early days of the epidemic and while the band continued to play.  I was lucky enough to escape both direct infection (some other straight girls were not) and the indirect agony of losing a loved one to the disease. Instead, I counted the deaths of people whose work I admired (including Mr. Shilts) and watched social attitudes boomerang from a careless, free-wheeling acceptance to paranoia and fear.  Eventually some tolerance and responsible behavior prevailed over the insanity but not before lives were ruined.

The band still plays and the party goes on but new arrivals approach the dance floor knowing about safer practices and retrovirals.  This is good since AIDS now lives all over the globe and in more than 31 million people.  Only Providence knows if/when a real cure will be found.   When that  happens, And The Band Played On will become another historical book about a human tragedy.  I would love to see that happen.

If it does, people may read Randy Shilts’s book years from now and marvel over his work. They’ll shake their heads over early missteps in the AIDS epidemic and cheer the marginalized community that organized itself and responded to problems ignored by the people in power.  Somebody, someday will read this disaster account and feel only compassionate detachment.  That person will never be me.

Pelucidity from Persepolis


Today’s column is by Barb Goydas. Whether she’s willing to admit it or not, Barb is a constant reader and one of those people who generates literary “buzz” by telling everyone when she finds a great new book. I introduced her to “Maus”. She returned the favor with “Persepolis”


I love how one thing leads to another, although, I don’t like the sense of “no control”.  I like to have a map and predict which road I will take.  To travel without direction can lead to someplace risky.  Still, I often have to remind myself, “with risk comes reward”.  


Three summers ago, my sister sent the book “Maus” when my son was exploring his interest in World War II.  She thought it would be perfect, knowing his affinity for comic books. It arrived at the house, while he was off visiting his grandparents in Florida,  I had the house to myself and was looking for something to read.  Thinking it would only take me an hour or two, I decided to try it out.  I didn’t have high expectations, since it was a “comic book” for goodness sake.  Not only did the book move me emotionally, but it made me realize the power of a graphic novel.


I wanted more.  I found Persepolis.


At the time, I thought it would be an interesting read.  I was not versed in Middle Eastern politics and  Middle eastern history felt like a big subject to research. At that time, I summed up the issues of that region (when the subject arose) with a nod of my head, a roll of my eyes and one word, “oil”.   Reading this book, gave me an attitude adjustment.


Persepolis is a memoir in the form of a a graphic novel.  The author, Marjane Satrapi, grew up in Tehran during the last years of Shah’s regime and beginning of the Islamic Revolution and Persopolis tells how the changes in her country affected herself, her family, her friends and her surroundings.  As I was reading, I realized Marjane and I are about the same age.  I remember 1980.  I still have the images in my mind from the newscast my parents watched every night.  The hostages, the burning effigies, the mobs of angry people. It never crossed my mind that a girl my age was coping and living through that upheaval.  


Majane tells what it was like to have to wear a veil at 10.  She shows how a 10 year-old’s faith in God is shaken.  She gives the reader an insight to what it’s like to have neighbors be whisked away without a reason, and try to make sense of it.  As she grows older, her patriotism becomes stronger.   She feels repressed (like any normal teenager) and her parents fear for her life as well as their own.   She carries through this time with laughter, grace and tears.  Life is hard enough being a teenager, let alone living though a war.


The illustrations are simple, yet explain so much along with the text. The anger and hate that Marjane lived with everyday can be seen in the black and white drawings.  The absence of color provide the sense of seriousness of the situation. 
The book made me realize that the fanatics and fundamentalists seen in the news are only a small part of the country; that those without television exposure were and are a silent majority.  I grew as a person reading this graphic novel. I realized how a “simplistic visual” can help define a complex subject. I refuse to categorize any region now by its exports. Persepolis redefined the world for me.  

Sometimes, following a road to an unknown destination is a very good thing. The risk is worth the reward.

To Live Life on Permanent Vacation

Vacation Season is coming to an end again, leaving  us poorer, happier and (hopefully) a bit less stressed.  It’s amazing how much of the rest of our lives are spent preparing for or dwelling on those limited interludes of time.  And during each holiday, whether it’s in the mountains, at an amusement park or on the beach, someone always muses, “I wonder what it’s like living here.” Of course, the speaker is shouted down by a chorus of “If you lived here, it wouldn’t be special” and “money flows through this place, it doesn’t stay here” (both of which are true) but what the speaker means is, “What would life be like if you were permanently on vacation?” That is something we all wonder about.  What would it be like to live in a beautiful place with enough money to pay for your needs?  According to Anne Rivers Siddons (one of my favorite novelists) a vacation lifestyle will still cost too much in the end.

In Low Country, Caro Venable seems to have hit vacation life nirvana.  As the heiress of Peacock island ( a sunchaser’s paradise with an army of flora and fauna) off the Carolina coast and the wife of a real estate mogul, she lives the kind of life vacationers drool over.  Her husband, Clay, develops pockets of rarefied real estate into gated resort communities and his first development  encompassed the ocean side of their island.  The company’s done well, their marriage is good and Caro has more material assets than most of us can imagine.  So why is this woman so sad?

The death of her daughter accounts for a good part of the answer but that’s not the only reason Caro drinks too much.  Caro knows the success of her husband’s company is driven by the  soul-consuming work of her husband’s executives whose spouses must be willing to sublimate their own ambitions and needs. Part of Caro’s responsibility has been to ease the “company wives” (for the company is primarily men) into accepting this subservient position.  Caro doesn’t like this any more than she likes her life as a dilettante but she accepts that as part of an unspoken truce.  As long as Caro can be left to her grief, art and liquor on the undeveloped part of the island, her husband can have the rest.  Then something upsets the truce.

A financial disaster puts the business on the ropes and Clay believes the only way out is to develop the remaining portion of the island, home to generations of wildlife and Gullah families.  Development would give him the capital to recapture and keep his success but it would ruin the wildlands Caro holds dear.  Eventually Caro has to choose between saving her husband’s dreams or her own and decide what she’s willing to sacrifice . She has to end her isolated life of vacation.

Perhaps that’s why leisure time has great meaning for us, those days of  our “fun in the sun”.  The days of  decreased responsibility and care are precious to us because they are few.  As unattractive as work may seem at times, it still lends a sense of purpose and structure to our days as well as a paycheck.  Our species thrives on priorities and structure.  We love vacation but we need work.

So,  I hope you’ve enjoyed some holiday time this summer and if you haven’t I hope you’ll see some soon.  Send me snaps of you and your family and friends on the rides or in the park, wherever you like to play.  It’s good to have a holiday.  Then send me tales of your regular life, the one filled with alarm clocks, schedules and 9-5 jobs.  More than a pleasant vacation, I hope you enjoy your work.