Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year SearchThe Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year SearchWith the success of the movie "Philomena," this book was reissued as Philomena with a cover showing Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the actors who play Philomena Lee and Martin Sexsmith in the film. The book, which came first, is not really about Philomena. It's about her son Anthony, known as Michael Hess in the United States.

Although I found the book to be mostly fascinating, it is decidedly not nonfiction. As a fictionalized account of Michael Hess' life, British journalist Sixsmith took extreme liberties with the story...inventing dialogue and fabricating scenes that didn't actually happen. I looked in the back to see his sources, but no interviews, letters, or other paperwork were cited. We know he interviewed people, but one of his key sources, Susan Kavanaugh, has said that he made up a lot of what's in the book and painted Michael's character in an unflattering way. How could Sixsmith have known what Michael said confidentially to his therapist and priest in confession? He should have stated at the outset that this was a fictionalized account of Hess' life.

With that said, I found Michael's story to be moving and interesting. I learned a great deal about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the inner workings of the Republican party during Reagan's tenure, and the Irish Catholic church. I already knew about the Magdalene laundries and found the beginning of the book to be fascinating and heartbreaking, as Philomena Lee's beloved son is ripped away from her...and she was powerless to prevent it. I saw the film "The Magdalene Sisters" back in 2003 and know the Joni Mitchell song well. Watch this 5-minute video with the song, which gives more information about the Magdalene laundries. The Catholic church has never taken responsibility for these abuses, and staunch Catholic defenders either defend the practices or deny that any abuses took place. In fact, young women and girls (such as Sinead O'Connor) were enslaved in these Catholic-run prisons until 1996.

Pope Francis meets Philomena Lee and Steve CooganIn my research, I was glad to discover that Philomena Lee met Pope Francis recently, giving her a sense of closure:
"I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today," said Lee on Thursday, a day after the audience. "Because you were made to feel so, so bad about having a baby out of wedlock. "He really made me feel so good inside because I carried the guilt inside me for 50 years, without telling anybody."
However, the Catholic church has yet to issue an apology or validate the abuses suffered in its name.

Back to the book. One quibble I had, echoed by Michael's friend Susan Kavanaugh, is the author's near-obsession with Michael's sexual practices. He is portrayed as a sex-obsessed, promiscuous. and thrill-seeking gay man who is incapable of staying faithful to his partners. That might be true, but we have no way of knowing where he got his information. It's almost as if he's implying that Michael contracted AIDS because of his sexual behavior. He also infers that Michael is never satisfied and cannot make a commitment because he is tortured by being abandoned by his mother. That seems to underline every single activity in Michael's life...that he didn't deserve to be happy. In spite of this, Michael led a highly successful career (as a closeted gay man and supposed Democrat) in the Republican party and the White House. That must have been enough torture for him--as he heard all sorts of homophobia, hatred, and AIDS jokes from the party itself and the religious right. One Goodreads reviewers put it well:
"Having stuck this very bad book through to the end, I really would have liked to understand Michael/Anthony's true character but perhaps only glimpses of that can be extrapolated from Sixsmith's words. He portrayed Michael on the one hand to be generous, witty, fun loving, brilliant, sensitive and on the other to be moody, self destructive, dangerous and insensitive. Completely misleading and contradictory. If a writer can't truly get to the heart of someone's character, then do bereaved friends and family still living a courtesy and don't write about character at all. If Sixsmith had focused on Philomena's quest rather than trying to fabricate a dead man's personality, he would have been more in his element."
Finally, Sixsmith's writing was choppy and didn't flow together well. In a few early chapters, we learn about a civil servant who is trying to stop the tide of Irish babies being sent to the USA to be adopted...Sixsmith alludes to his man's unhappy marriage as well, but to what point? He drops out of the story. We also never hear about Michael's relationship with his brothers later in of them mercilessly bullied him as a young child. We know he doesn't include them in his will, but that's about it. Sixsmith also wrote a couple of chapters in first person as he described how he wrote the book--this totally threw me off and confused me until I figured out who was speaking. These chapters would have been better put in an introduction.

I would have liked to have known more about Michael's sister Mary in her later years. She is mentioned a few times and comes to see Michael at the end of his life. Given the fact that she was the most important person in Michael's life--and she is still alive--why didn't we get more of her story? I can find little about her on the Internet.

Judi Dench with Philomena Lee
Philomena herself doesn't come into the book again until the very end, which was a loss. I'm not sure why Sixsmith chose to portray the life of a man who had died...instead of the mother who was alive. Maybe so he could take literary license with the facts? Who knows?

I was annoyed by the ending, in which Sixsmith mentions Anthony/Michael's father...he alludes to the fact that his father might have been discovered, but says that is a topic for another book. What the hell? That is definitely not enough for another book. Why not share the information in this book??
Philomena Lee at her son's grave

Both Michael and Philomena stalled in their efforts to find each other. The Catholic church and the Irish government were not helpful. In fact, if the book is correct, Philomena found out about her son when her daughter Jane spied a photo of a new gravestone on the convent grounds. That small lead led to this story.

I give the real Philomena Lee and Michael Hess, both fascinating characters with interesting lives, five stars. The book gets two or three, because the story was compelling...but loses a lot in the telling.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

You know those books that stun you and make you marvel at the beauty of the writing? This is that kind of book. But it's not for the faint-hearted or for anyone who doesn't like salty language.

Acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild (link to my review), wrote an advice column called "Dear Sugar" for The Rumpus for a few years. When she began writing, she described herself as having the “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” Yes, that fits well. It's just as much raw, honest memoir as advice columns.

Letters to Dear Sugar range from people trying to decide whether to stay with their partners to others who don't know how to handle their partners' sexual desires. One woman wrote in to ask about whether she should try to have a child, while others expressed confusion about whether it was okay not to have a child.

In every case, Sugar responds in the most loving, kind way she your closest, most honest and compassionate friend. Honest is the key word here; sometimes it's tough love, such as the letter from a privileged young person complaining about her parents not being willing to pay off her college loans. On other occasions, Strayed shares candidly about her own sex life and relationships.

Here's another example: a man overheard his close friends talking about his relationship with a woman they didn't think was particularly good for him. Understandably, he felt betrayed and upset. Sugar responds empathetically, but then shares her own similar story and explains that his friends were not discussing his love life to be mean, but because they care about him.

Strayed is heartfelt, honest, and authentic in her responses. In one column, someone writes in with a simple but vague question: "WTF, WTF, WTF? I'm asking this question as it applies to everything every day." In response, Sugar shares her experience of her grandfather sexually abusing her. In so many of these columns, she guts herself to bear her soul.

Strayed made me cry many times, mostly when she shares memories of her dead mother...such as in her title essay, "Tiny Beautiful Things," when she offers advice to her 20-something self.

In one letter, a woman writes about her 6-month-old daughter with a brain tumor and how she questions God's can God exist if her baby is allowed to die? Even though Strayed is a professed atheist ("I don't even believe in God") and wonders who the hell she is to respond to the letter, she does respond in the most beautiful, graceful way imaginable. Here's an excerpt:
"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"
You can read Sugar's columns online on the Rumpus blog, as I've shared, but I encourage you to read it as a book. You can read them in bite-size chunks so you can savor them slowly. And as it's Thanksgiving week, I direct you to Dear Sugar's Thanksgiving column (not in the book), in which she shares 94 things to be grateful for, collected from her readers. I plan to read this post gradually and savor it throughout the week!

I will leave you with a few great quotes from Dear Sugar:
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.” 
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” 
"You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
“Forgiveness doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” 
“But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.” 
“We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people.”
“I can’t tell you what to do. No one can. But as the mother of two children, I can tell you what most moms will: that mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. Like the best thing you ever did. Like if you think you want to have a baby, you probably should.
I say this in spite of the fact that children are giant endless suck machines. They don’t give a whit if you need to sleep or eat or pee or get your work done or go out to a party naked and oiled up in a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask. They take everything. They will bring you the furthest edge of your personality and abso-fucking-lutely to your knees.
They will also give you everything back. Not just all they take, but many of the things you lost before they came along as well.” 
 “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It's a giant place. it's a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light.” 
“One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.” 
Loved this book. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Body Work

Body Work (V.I. Warshawski, #14)Body Work, by Sara Paretsky

I've been reading Sara Paretsky since my 20s...she's one of my favorite detective novelists. V.I. Warshawski is based in Chicago, and she's a hard-boiled feminist, whiskey-swilling, kick-ass detective. That's why I like her.

In Body Work, V.I. encounters edgy young artist/entertainers, grumpy night club owners, Eastern European gangsters, and Iraq war vets, while trying to help out her young, impulsive cousin Petra.

This novel was not my favorite...I did finish it, but it was not as compelling as her other books.

I will continue reading all of Paretsky's books, in the hope the next one will be better!

All About Those Books

My youngest son, Nicholas, loves "All About That Bass,' that contagiously catchy, retro-inspired pop song. "All About That Bass" has been accused of "skinny shaming"

("I'm bringing booty back; go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that...") 

and encouraging women to feel validated by what a man thinks

("Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase and all the right junk in all the right mama she told me don't worry about your size...
she says boys like a little more booty to hold at night"). 

I'm not too concerned about the "skinny shaming," because there's just no comparison to the fat shaming that overweight people experience. But I don't like the word "bitches." I've clearly explained to my kids that they are never to use that word...I don't like the way it's become so commonly accepted in popular culture (thanks, Breaking Bad).

I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy! I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy!