Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Serious Men: Meh...

Serious Men: A Novel1 of 5 stars

I'm an Indian fiction nut...so when I saw this at the library, I had to check it out. It started off well enough, but then I kept debating whether I should continue because I found myself wishing I was reading something else. Never a good sign. But continue I did. I've since started a new book (Supermarket by Japanese novelist Satoshi Azuchi) and realizing how disappointing I found Serious Men.

Serious Men chronicles the lives and trials of two men in Mumbai. Ayyan Mani, a dalit (formerly known as untouchable) lives in the slums with his wife and son while working in the Institute of Theory and Research as an assistant to the director. He spends all day serving snobby Brahmins, whose caste is responsible for the historic degradation and humiliation of the dalit. His anger is ready to boil over, but he finds small ways to take revenge. I found Ayyan Mani's story--and his sneaky, deceptive ploys to gain attention for his partly deaf son--to be the most interesting part of this book. The fact that others did not see through his deception, I believe, is meant to be part of the satire.

The director, an arrogant astronomer named Arvind Acharya, has his own problems. He's dealing with office politics on a daily basis, as the other scientists attempt to overthrow his regime. He ends up falling into an affair with the only female scientist, Oparna, which threatens to destroy both his marriage and his career.

I found myself scanning over the pages of scientific debate about extraterrestrial life and the politics of which research projects should be funded...boring. Perhaps I would be more interested if I were a scientist? It's possible, but even science can be written about in a more interesting way.

What ultimately gave the book one star in my mind, though, was the sexist and demeaning portrayal of the women characters. Ayyan Mani's dull wife is addicted to soap operas and believes any yarn he spins her. He married her to get away from the clutches of modern women with whom he was sleeping. Acharya's wife is the most believable--she is way more grounded than her husband--but after she finds out about his affair, she fades away, presumably accepting her lot in life.

But the worst was the character of Oparna, who is introduced as a brilliant, independent, and strong woman. When she threw herself at the old, "fat" director, I didn't buy it. As a woman who has never been attracted to much-older, more powerful men, this plot line did not ring true. I found their sex in the basement to be repulsive. Then after Acharya ended the affair, she decided to ruin both of their careers by fabricating a lie about their dual research project. Manu Joseph clearly scorns modern, independent, single women.

These passages are a few examples of the way Joseph feels about his women characters--Ayyan musing on how he escaped the risky option of relationships with modern women:
"Free love, Ayyan knew in his heart, is an enchanting place haunted by demented women. Here, every day men merely got away. And then, without warning, they were finished. The girl would come and say, like a martyr, that she was pregnant, or would remember that all the time she was being raped, or her husband would arrive with a butcher's knife. Such things always happened in the country of free love. Ayyan Mani had fled in time from there into the open arms of a virgin. But Acharya had fled the other way."
Oparna on facing a jury of scientists to discuss her allegations against her ex-lover:
"She wondered how women would have handled this situation. What if the jury had been comprised of menopausal women? That was a disturbing thought. They would have butchered her in a minute. But this jury of ageing men was going to be easy."
And a description of Oparna's lot in life:
"She would wander through life beseeching men to love her, frighten them with the intensity of her affection, marry one whose smell she could tolerate, and then resume the search for love. And she would suffer the loneliness of affairs..."
I rarely give one-star ratings to books, because I research them before I read them (too little time to read, so why read trash?). This had so much potential--it could have been great social satire and commentary on the lot of dalit and the hypocrisy of modern science and office politics--but ultimately disappoints.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Babyface: A Story of Heart and Bones

Babyface: A Story of Heart and Bones4 out of 5 stars

Science writer Jeanne McDermott's second son, Nathaniel, was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic craniofacial condition that results in a towering skull, a sunken face, and webbed fingers. McDermott and her family were immediately plunged into the world of neonatal and pediatric intensive care, as Nathaniel endured several surgeries throughout his childhood.

Any parent who has had a child with a fragile medical condition will be able to relate to some of McDermott's agony as she and her husband struggled with critical decisions for her infant son. Not only was I drawn to this book because of my experience birthing an extremely premature baby, but also because I was born with a cleft lip and palate and endured multiple surgeries as a child, in addition to rude stares.

They struggled with a name choice: should they use their intended name, Nathaniel, because everything they had imagined for this baby had suddenly changed. (We, too, debated whether to use the name we had chosen when Christopher was born, but in our case it was because we didn't know if he would live or die.)

I could relate to her dedicating herself to the baby's health through her pregnancy, being "obsessed with the baby's well-being, aware that every sip, every bite, every chance to put my feet up had been for him." And realizing that she couldn't protect him in the hospital, where he needed her the most. And sending her husband to the NICU in her stead, "Pleased that he could do what I could not, but as soon as he vanished down the hallway, I wished him back." I felt the same way when Chris was born. Since I was recovering from a c-section, Mike was much more mobile than I was and able to visit the NICU more often and easily. I've read that NICU dads bond more equally with their babies, since with a normal birth, the mom is the primary caregiver if she is nursing. In the NICU, the playing field was leveled.

On the night of Nathaniel's birth, McDermott expressed her worst fears to a kind night nurse. "I'm scared that Nathaniel will live at home forever. I'm scared that kids will tease him and no one will invite him to a birthday party." I recall Chris' first surgery, when he was still a pound and a half--it was a heart surgery--and a kind nurse asked me what I feared the most. It felt cathartic to express that fear (that he would die), and I was grateful for her reassurance that she'd never seen a baby die from this type of surgery.

McDermott voluntarily participated in a birth defects study, but while she was in the midst of being asked all sorts of probing questions, it started getting to her. No mother of a child with a birth defect or born prematurely fails to ask herself if it was something she did. Before Chris was even born, my OB said "whatever you do, don't blame yourself." My first thought was: why would I blame myself? But later I went to that dark place as well.

Her happiness at Nathaniel's successes and good-natured personality constantly got hampered by rude comments or stares...or specialists listing her son's deficits and problems. "When our baby was still a newborn, we got a 20-page pamphlet that spelled out, in small print, all the things that might go wrong." This began the day Chris was born and continued for many years. One thing that stood out was that we were told he was falling behind when he couldn't cut with scissors at age 2 or 3...even though he'd never seen a pair of scissors in his life (who gives a 2-year-old scissors?). One kidney doctor tried to convince us to put him on growth hormones because he was convinced Chris would be short (because it took him so long to "catch up"). It's very depressing as a parent to have everyone focus on your child's deficits instead of his victories.

During one of Nathaniel's surgeries, his parents heard a sharp, primordial women's scream and knew that she had lost her child. Losing a child is the most painful experience a person can bear, and when you have a sick child, this possibility is always one's greatest fear. It's hard to escape this in the NICU or PICU when so many parents around us lost their children. We would walk into the NICU and see an empty bed where a baby had been the day before, and we knew the baby had died. One older preemie went home healthy and contracted RSV, returned to the hospital, and died.

Nathaniel's parents donated blood, because it felt like one of the few things they could do to help him, but the blood bank lost it. "It was one of the few times that I completely lost it: I screamed hysterically, 'you lost our blood!'" In Chris' case, my mom donated blood for him...but someone at Red Cross left it out overnight, ruining it and forcing us to use a stranger's blood instead.

McDermott's reaction to her son's brand new, first-day-on-the-job nurse reminded me of how I felt when Chris had one of his worst crises and he had a rough, new-to-us nurse who I felt was incompetent and clumsy. Of course, Mike charmed her...but I stubbornly refused to warm up to her. Later during his stay she tried to convince us that he'd developed an addiction to morphine...not very comforting to parents to hear!

After Nathaniel's first surgery, they felt desperate to get him off the ventilator. I remember the agony of Chris finally coming off the vent at 6 weeks--and seeing his face for the first time!, only to have to go back on it when he acquired a life-threatening infection. It felt like going backward.

As Nathaniel's surgeries added up, McDermott found refuge in "Baby Group" (a group of parents organized through Early Intervention). "It was powerful to simply congregate with other mothers whose babies had special needs..." I too found the comfort of speaking to other parents in the NICU--both during that period and afterward--to be my lifeline. That's why Mike and I have volunteered to help other parents over the past 14 years. No one else can truly understand the pain and agony of this experience unless they have been through it themselves.

Nathaniel (now Nate) was born in 1990, so I was curious to read about how he'd fared, now that he is 20 years old. According to my internet research, he graduated from high school, where he played ultimate frisbee and worked on the tech crew in drama productions. He also served in the peer leader program as an advocate to other students. He was one of three seniors in his high school chosen to receive the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Award for academic excellence. He is now attending the University of Hartford and plans on a career in math/business and hopes to be a disability activist. I'm sure he is an inspiration to other children and families affected by Apert syndrome.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, revisited

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)We are the kind of Harry Potter family that placed a preorder for each book as it came out, so the book would be delivered to our doorstep on the day of its release. For the last Harry Potter book, Mike and Chris went to the book release party at our local bookstore, Annie Bloom's. The next morning we left bright and early for Hawaii, during which time Mike, Chris, and I took turns reading the book. Fortunately a coworker had finished her copy and lent it to us, so my most vivid memory of that trip is Mike and I both staying up late reading! I raced through the book because I wanted to find out what happened.

With the release of the seventh Harry Potter film, I decided I'd reread the book. This time I savored it and read it slowly. I enjoyed it even more this time.

And I cried again at the end. I won't say why, because it would be a spoiler.

What a wonderful series this is! I can't wait to see the movie.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fifteen writers who have influenced me

A Facebook friend recently tagged me in her note and encouraged me to come up with my own list of "15 writers who have influenced me and will always stick with me."

The instructions were to list the first 15, or as many as I could recall, in no more than 15 minutes. So here goes...I could have easily listed 30. I always have a hard time limiting myself. (Actually I cheated and came up with 16!! Such a rule breaker!)

Little House on the Prairie Boxed Set1. Laura Ingalls Wilder (childhood favorite)

The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated2. William Shakespeare (took a couple of Shakespeare classes in high school and have seen many plays over the years)

The Secret Garden3. Francis Hodgson Burnett (a favorite during a children's lit class in college--started reading A Secret Garden again recently to Kieran and was reminded of how much I enjoyed it)

Collected Poems4. Syvia Plath (loved her poetry in high school and have always been fascinated with her story)

The Complete Novels of Jane Austen5. Jane Austen (I was an English major, remember? And she was the subject of my first conversation with Mike)

6. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin (Mike and I wrote love letters during our courtship, when we lived an hour away from each other in Japan--I fell in love with him through his beautiful writing...I hope people beyond me and his writers' groups will discover him soon, too!)

The Color Purple7. Alice Walker (The Color Purple, which I read in Feminist Theology at PLU, changed my life)

Their Eyes Were Watching God8. Zora Neale Hurston (also discovered during Feminist Theology)

The Golden Notebook: Perennial Classics edition (Paperback)9. Doris Lessing (after reading The Golden Notebook in Feminist Theology, I designed an independent study course around her Children of Violence series and other texts)

Braided Lives10. Marge Piercy (read all of her novels and much of her poetry during college and the years after)

The Cider House Rules: A Novel (Modern Library)11. John Irving (first read The Cider House Rules on my travels, and then consumed most of his other novels...also got to hear him in person several years ago)

Jitterbug Perfume12. Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume was my first Tom Robbins...haven't read him for awhile, but I should pick one of those mind-changing, thought-provoking books up again!)

The Bean Trees13. Barbara Kingsolver (a bookstore owner friend turned me onto Kingsolver way before she got so popular--I started with The Bean Trees--at the time the only novel she'd yet published!)

Midwives (Oprah's Book Club)14. Chris Bohjalian (I wrote a few weeks ago about how much I love his books--I started with Midwives and have never been disappointed)

My Year of Meats15. Ruth Ozeki (I loved My Year of Meats and All Over Creation--wish she would write some more!)

Harry Potter Complete Set books 1-716. JK Rowling ('nuff said!)

How about you? Who are your 15 (or 16)?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

In praise of Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
In preparation for the release of the first film of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I'm rereading the book. I haven't read it since it was first published in 2007...and I raced through it, desperate to find out what would happen. I am thoroughly enjoying my second time through and am acutely aware of how little I retain in my reading! I remember the basic plot but had forgotten a lot of the wonderful small details.

In honor of all things Harry Potter, here is a post I wrote on my other blog in July 2009...it should really be updated with the account of our trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter this past summer! With our family of three HP-obsessed boys, it's been a pleasure to read these books over and over with each son.
Harry Potter through the Ages
Phase 1: Circa 1999? Not sure of the exact year...my mother-in-law persuades me to try a Harry Potter book at last (being all the rage in the UK)--I'm not interested in fantasy and am not convinced I would like it. But wham! I am sucked in immediately and get hooked--read all of the books available at that time (I think only the first two at that stage).

Phase 2: We begin reading all of the books with Chris.

Phase 3: Everywhere he goes, Chris is told that he looks like Harry Potter. Then he gets whacked on the forehead by an errant wooden racquet...and ends up with his first trip to the emergency room and a scar on his forehead!

Chris dresses up as the great boy wizard on Halloween:

Although I don't think Harry himself ever looked quite that happy!

Once JK Rowling hits it really big in the U.S., we begin ordering each book so it arrives on the day of release--delivered first thing in the morning. Very exciting! Initially we try to read it as a family, but soon Mike and I begin sneaking ahead (bad parents!).

Phase 4: Years later--2007--Chris and Mike attend their first midnight book release party at Annie Bloom's Bookstore for the final book--and Chris wins a t-shirt! The next morning, bright and early, we leave for Hawaii.

Our happy Harry Potter
Chris and friend Garen at the party

While in Hawaii, we all try to read the book at once--but fortunately my colleague Lisa is there at the same time, and she'd finished her book! So Mike and I stay up late at night reading obsessively!! (One of these days I must go back and reread it because I can't remember a whole lot.)

Posing in Hawaii with prized Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Phase 5: Kieran gets bitten by the Harry Potter bug. We (mostly Mike) begin reading the books to him, and he doesn't want to stop between books...doesn't get scared by any of the heavy stuff and positively soaks up the adventures. He flies through all seven books one at a time. We let him watch the associated movies after he's heard each book.
The next Harry Potter

Thus begins the beginning of Kieran's impersonation of Harry Potter...which still continues to this day. He crafts wands, broomsticks, potions, and snitches, and casts constant spells. (Although I have forbidden him from using the Avadra Kevadra curse on his brothers, explaining that it's like pointing a pretend gun at them.)

Nicholas as Voldemort--he has no idea what it means, but he likes to pretend to be "the dark lord"!

Kieran with the broomstick he made by tying a bunch of long pine needles together and tying them to the end of a stick!

Kieran with broom

Recent HP adventures at our house include Kieran mixing up potions in the living room WITH FOOD COLORING no less (by the time Mike noticed that wasn't such a great idea, the Persian carpet had yellow stains on it--anyone know how to get them out?). He is determined to procure a real cauldron (he has a plastic one). Kieran has drawn "the dark mark" on Nicholas' arm, and they frequently have red lightning marks on their foreheads. Yesterday morning Kieran was giving Nick wand lessons (every stick in the yard or chopstick in the kitchen is a wand): "Swish and flick!" Nicholas made up a spell yesterday to cheer Kieran up. 10 minutes later, I found myself yelling "Wands are not for hitting!"

More dressup

On Tuesday the four of us went to see the latest Harry Potter film. I hoped we weren't doing the wrong thing, because those movies are quite a bit more intense in the cinema than they are on the little screen. But Kieran was fine. I did have to cover his eyes during some previews--there's a movie coming out called "2012" that looks like some kind of armageddon flick. The images were upsetting for ME to look at...and I thought them too much for a 6-year-old. Of course, children even younger than Kieran were in the theater...in the past, I must admit to some horror at seeing how parents take their very young children to VERY inappropriate films.

At the showing of HP 6
We enjoyed the film, and yes, I cried. They left a lot of pieces out, and they added in a few scenes that weren't really necessary. Overall, we'd give it two thumbs up. Book 6 is my least-favorite book of all of them. I have to say that Jim Broadbent really brought Horace Slughorn to life. I was underwhelmed by him in the book (especially after colorful Dolores Umbridge), although Mike thought he was a highly memorable character (apparently he knew social-climbing teachers similar to Slughorn, being at an English boarding school).

The chemistry between Harry and Ginny seemed to be lacking, as it was in the book. Ginny, however, did come across as a slightly stronger character in the movie than she did in the book.
With my little Harry at the theater

I am ambivalent about the decision to split Book 7 into two movies. On one hand, they will be able to include more detail from the book, but on the other hand, it will be hard to stop at the end of the first movie. And we have to wait 2 more years until the saga is finally ended on film!
For now, I think I will go back and reread the books so I can remember more about them. (Chris has started rereading Book 6 after having seen the movie.) And then I'm sure we will read them all over again when Nicholas becomes old enough! Onward, Phase 6!