Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of all Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
4 stars - at times a bit slow, but overall, a grand novel
ALR Green - a nice dog towards the end of the book

Friends, my reading mojo has been significantly diminished by the extraordinarily harsh winter here in New England. With over 100 inches of snow accumulating in a month and desperately cold temperatures, I've been reduced to binge watching mindless television series on Netflix.

Thus, it took some time for me to get through this, rather dense, 500 page novel.

The Signature of All Things is the life story of Miss Alma Whittacker. Born, conveniently, in 1800 (even I had no trouble calculating her age throughout the story), Miss Whittacker is the only daughter of the great botanical explorer and businessman, Henry Whittacker. Her world is all about plants, science, and striving to learn. For many years, life at the White Acres estate is sufficient. It's a fabulous Pennsylvania retreat filled with greenhouses of exotic plants from all over the world. There is also the running of her father's business to engage her as he hires botanical explorers to traverse the globe in search of more and more species of plants, both medicinal and decorative. When Alma's father dies, she is confronted with the opportunity to leave White Acres for the first time. To seek adventure, yes, but also to seek answers to those vexing questions of human nature which no science can explain. 

There are many surprising turns throughout. Not surprising in the manner of a great mystery, but more so in the inevitable changes of direction in the lives of most of us. Who can predict at the age of twenty where we will be and what we will consider important decades hence? The events of our lives, while mostly un-noteworthy in the greater world are always quite compelling to ourselves.

So it is with Alma Whittacker. Each decade brings a life both unexpected and, yet, somehow predictable and inevitable if one could only unwind the past to looks for clues. Alma's interests, her feelings towards others, her decisions regarding how to live change over time. Her life experiences are recorded brilliantly. As in my own life, there are many years which can be summarized with a few sentences while other times days must be examined in detail. 

Alma's botanical research eventually leads her to mosses, plants which patiently evolve over decades, fight silent battles, and often only reveal their true power when taken as a whole over time. 

I fear to reveal the events of Alma's life would be to spoil the joy of taking the journey with her, so I will say no more on that topic. While it is a wonderful, rich book, I did find it a bit sluggish at times. I can't say whether that is due to an editor reluctant to cut or my snow clouded brain, but it was certainly worth continuing on through the end. 

I will share with you one passage from the book which resonated with me. A character who had spent many years traveling the world in search of rare orchids arrives at the Whittacker estate and is immediately charmed by the possibility of spending his remaining life surrounded by an abundance of things both ordinary and extraordinary to examine at his leisure. It captures exquisitely my current state of mind regarding seeking adventure v. enjoying the pleasures at hand.

I would like never to travel again. I would like to spend the rest of my days in a place so silent - and working at a pace so slow - that I would be able to hear myself living.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial
by Sheri Fink
5 stars - a lot to think about
ALR Yellow - pets euthanized rather than be left behind, implied deaths of others

From the dust cover:

After Katrina struck and the flood waters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

The first part of the book deals with the five days during and after Katrina where doctors, families, and patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were faced with unimaginable hardship and decisions. Critically ill patients and mismanaged rescue attempts forced them to make increasingly difficult decisions about who should go on the rescue helicopters and how to move patients without causing further harm to them. 

Once "rescued" many spent hours or days at roadside dropping points, waiting for evacuation and treatment. 

Ms. Fink spent six years researching this book and through interviews and documents, she is able to piece together most of what went on during Katrina. It's all just awful and, if nothing else, will remind readers that, in some instances, if you weren't there, you can't judge.

The second part of the book is about the charges of homicide brought against medical professionals, not just at Memorial, but at other hospitals and nursing homes. I won't tell you the outcome. I will say that as I read through the cases presented by both sides of the argument, I found myself mired in very murky waters indeed and struggling to decide on my own whether the decisions made were the right ones.

The book ends with a discussion of what has been done post-Katrina to improve emergency preparedness of hospitals in the US. In short, some steps have been taken, but not nearly enough. Nobody wants to think about the worst case until it happens. Businesses and communities hold tightly to their wallets. Proactive, costly evacuations, if not followed by the expected devastation of facilities get marked as wastes of resources. 

Five Days at Memorial is well written and very readable. But I warn you, it is filled with anguish and will likely haunt you for some time to come. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

Harpo Speaks
by Harpo Marx
with Rowland Barber
4 stars - delightful
ALR Green

First a bit of background on how I came to be in possession of this book.

As teenagers, my older sister and I were obsessed with the Marx Brothers. So while other teens were reading Teen Beat and getting in a lather over the likes of John Travolta and David Cassidy, we were busy reading and absorbing every bit of information we could find about the Marx brothers. In the age before the Internet, that meant hours at the library, scrolling through old copies of Variety on microfiche and haunting used books stores for out of print copies of the various biographies and autobiographies by and about the Brothers Marx. 

We also made innumerable trips by subway into Boston to watch (repeatedly) the Marx Brothers double features presented at the Park Square Theater.

But the one thing that eluded us was a copy of Harpo Marx's autobiography. Out of print for many years, a copy finally turned up at a used book dealer in our home town in July of 1974. So dear was this volume that after writing my name and address on the inside cover, I added that a reward would be available for the safe return of the book. Luckily, I never needed to provide a reward and the book has remained in my collection.

So how does Harpo Speaks hold up forty years hence when my infatuation has long since passed? Very well, very well indeed. The first half of the book details life in NYC during the early 20th century for the Marx brothers in general, and Harpo in particular. They were a scrappy crew who found their way to gambling, stealing, and other acts of mayhem in order to survive. Harpo doesn't pull any punches on that account. He tells us what he did and why and how he feels looking back on that time in his life.

But their mother, Minnie, had bigger ideas. Specifically, she saw vaudeville as the way to get her family out of poverty. So into vaudeville they went. This is not the glamorous, nostalgic vaudeville one might picture, but ten plus years of grueling performances, skanky hotels, one night stands, and living hand to mouth. But then, finally, they find themselves in the big time with their first hit show, I'll Say She Is. That was in 1924. The show was followed by Coconuts and Monkey Business, and in 1929, Coconuts was made into an all talking all singing movie extravaganza and they were off and running.

Thus begins part two of Harpo's memoirs and in that part, the reader learns less about the professional side of Mr. Marx and more about the personal side. Despite dropping out of school (Harpo after second grade), the brothers were, to a man, well educated, literate, and artistically talented. Harpo's good friend, Alex Wolcott, introduced him to a variety of interesting people who became part of his gang. Artists, literary icons, actors, you name it. 

There were five Marx Brothers. Gummo left the act early on to fight in World War I and never returned. Zeppo also left shortly after their first few movies as he did not enjoy the life in the theater. Chico, Groucho, and Harpo all continued on in show business, both together and separately.

So, yes, I recommend this book (if you can find it). The writing is wonderful, the life of Harpo Marx is fascinating, and it's also a great time capsule of life in the early 20th century.

While reading the book, I spent no small amount of time on YouTube to determine if I still enjoyed watching the performances of the Marx Brothers. Yes I did. I find their comedy to be delightful and nuanced. Then there are the musical performances. Harpo is, of course, best known for his harp playing (all self-taught), but I found the clip below that features Harpo and Chico on the piano. It's a wonderful example of how they were able to use their extraordinary talents to combine great piano playing with well timed gags.