Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reading, writing, and breathing

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
---Henry David Thoreau (Walden, 1854)

I am thinking this evening about quiet desperation. My feeling tonight is not quiet, but angry and restless and relentless desperation.
---written by me, on Sept. 24, 2009

This past Thursday evening, I slid into a terrible dark mood. I wrote a blog, then stopped just before wrapping it up, and instead of posting it, I e-mailed it to my friend Marie, the author of the blog sweetness, sweetness. I told her it was a "long rambling angry swearing miserable blog" before pasting it below my message, giving her fair warning if she wanted to put off reading it until another time. (She's a good friend; she DID read it, and sent a supportive reply on Friday. Thank you again, Marie!)

Although Friday was a good day at work, and early Friday evening was tentative but much improved over Thursday, I didn't really feel GOOD until after I'd finished writing my review of Daphne, my latest score from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to really do a good review. It was a brand new trade paperback, priced at $15.00, and I got it for FREE, and it was a great read! So I felt this responsibility to "get it right." And, I should have written it last weekend, since I'd taken Friday off. It was hanging over me, and I felt physical and mental relief when I finished it and posted it last night.

I had this idea last night that for me, reading, and sometimes writing, are as necessary to my health and well-being as breathing. In a way, that's obviously not true, or a wild exaggeration, because breathing is something we do constantly, but reading and writing CAN'T be done constantly, even if we include THINKING about books and reading and writing. I realize they're not comparable in a real and logical way.

Perhaps for me, and other word lovers, we might compare it to a vitamin deficiency. If a person doesn't get enough of a particular vitamin or mineral, it can have quite an adverse effect on one's health. For me, reading is like that. If I could have an allotment of TIME, along with peace and quiet and as few interruptions as possible, to just read good books, I'd probably be a happier person. I don't write nearly as often as I did in my teen years, but once in a while, the need to write strikes me, and I truly feel it as a NEED, and I can't regain normalcy, or any sense of equilibrium (whatever that might mean in my case), until the need is met, until I get it "written out of me." So I bark and snarl at all who keep me from it, or interrupt me before I've finished -- as though I were a starving dog searching the trash outside a restaurant. If I'm writing, or starving to write, don't mess with me, because I WILL bite you.

For now, between last night's work and this post, I AM all written out, finally relaxed, and ready to begin the weekend. I will go for a walk, start my next audiobook, and feel some level of peace.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My review (finally!!!) of Daphne - by Justine Picardie

I received a copy of the novel Daphne by Justine Picardie through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I’m grateful to the publisher, Bloomsbury, and to LibraryThing for the opportunity to read and review this book.

I own 16 books by Daphne du Maurier. I confess that I’ve only read a handful of them, but clearly I’ve been impressed enough with what I have read to acquire a big stack of them. When I say that Justine Picardie’s book, “a novel about the author of Rebecca,” has a sense of atmosphere similar to du Maurier’s novels, and that Picardie has captured the spirit of du Maurier’s style, it’s a compliment.

The first 40 pages or so went a bit slowly for me, I think for two reasons. First, I had to adjust to the idea that a real historical person, a novelist I enjoy reading, is the main character of another writer’s novel. Second, there are three distinct perspectives in the book, and I had to read a couple chapters from each one to truly settle into the novel. But by page 50, I was absorbed in the characters, their thoughts and actions, their separate but overlapping stories.

One of the three perspectives is that of Daphne du Maurier, and another that of an archivist / Bronte scholar named John Symington. The chapters which focus on du Maurier and Symington are written in the third person, and they cover the period of 1957 to 1960. There’s also a modern-day character whose chapters are written in the first person: a young woman struggling with her Ph.D. thesis, and recently married to a much older man. She is researching the relationship between du Maurier and Symington (they corresponded in the late 1950s; no, it’s not a romance), and their mutual interest in Branwell Bronte. (Unlike du Maurier in Rebecca, Picardie DOES give her young female narrator a first name, but I only saw it once, late in the book.) There’s a literary mystery woven through the novel, and interesting character studies as well.

Picardie states in the Acknowledgements that her novel is based on a true story. To get inside du Maurier and Symington’s heads, and create a rich tapestry of the life circumstances they were in during the time of their correspondence, Picardie outlines in the Acknowledgements the research she did in order to write this novel. She interviewed du Maurier’s children, other relatives and friends, and Symington’s grandson. She includes the books she consulted, the scholars who offered insight, and librarians and archivists who assisted her research with primary sources. The book is a page-turner with brains, for readers who really LIKE writers, and those who appreciate veracity in historical fiction.

Once I “got into” the book, it was hard to put it down, and I loved it. I hope it brings Picardie success and many new readers. I’d be doubly glad if it wins du Maurier some new readers, especially those willing to explore beyond Rebecca.

(Also posted on LT, of course.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Let's have some cooperation here!"

When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, I found among our endless piles of paper an old newsletter from my preschool. There was a note about me in the newsletter, among the stories for parents about their children’s doings. I don’t remember the incident itself – I would have been four years old when it happened – but only seeing it in the newsletter years later. A couple of my classmates were having some kind of conflict or disagreement, and I had tried to intervene by saying to them, “Let’s have some cooperation here!”

Although I am easily annoyed and can be quick to anger – especially in the comfort and security of my family – I believe that in the best part of myself, I really dislike conflict. I never learned how to debate, and I don’t know how successful I’d be even if I had learned it, because in many cases, I can see good points in both sides of the argument.

President Obama’s speech last week about the need for health care reform truly touched me. While I was at Smith, my father was laid off from his job as a dishwasher. He’d been at the restaurant over 18 years. He was over 50 years old, with only a high school diploma and no marketable skills. He was overweight, and didn’t care much about his appearance, and didn’t have the money or wherewithal to really “dress up” and be presentable. When he lost his job at the restaurant, he and my mom lost their health insurance. (My brother and I might have been covered by my dad’s plan at that time, too, but I can’t recall.) They were never good about getting routine check-ups anyway, didn’t have any maintenance medications, so the surface parts of their lives weren’t much affected by the loss of health insurance. For the rest of my father’s life, he was either seeking work, or employed in positions which did not offer insurance, and never again had the kind of long-term job security he once had at the restaurant.

A while after I started working with Kansas Medicaid, I realized that my parents might be eligible for Medicaid in Massachusetts – known there as Mass Health. I began mentioning it to my parents periodically, but my dad wasn’t interested in applying for that, he just wanted to work. I’m not sure if he had a bias against it or any sense of shame. There were times in my childhood when we’d been eligible for food stamps and received them, and I don’t recall seeing any embarrassment when we used those.

When my parents came to visit us after Ryan was born, for a week in August 2002, I was struck by how thin my mother had become. Her near-constant complaints about her foot and lower leg – it was either causing her pain or it had gone numb, always one or the other – clearly indicated a need to see a doctor. After my parents went back to Massachusetts, I told my dad on the phone, “Ma’s birthday is coming up on the 23rd, and the best thing you can do for her is apply for Medicaid, so she can get that foot checked out” – and maybe get some encouragement to gain a little weight, I thought to myself. Thank heavens, he did pursue that, and my mom got some level of Medicaid benefits.

During my last semester of graduate school, I took a political science course called “Liberalism and Its Critics.” I’d always thought of myself as a liberal – Massachusetts is a blue state, after all – but I wanted to know more about it. The main text for the course was A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. No, we did not read the whole book – and even now, I think it would take me many months to get through it – but my professor, Deborah Mathieu, was excellent, and guided us through the primary points of Rawls’s theory. We also read from a few other books, and multiple articles, from both supporters and critics of the theory. I didn’t know then how much the class would impact my way of thinking about the world.

Jeff and I were married in November, and I finished grad school in December. We moved to Topeka, and stayed with Jeff’s parents while looking for jobs and saving money for an apartment. My first job in Topeka was a temp position at the Department of Revenue, where I did data entry all day. Typing in numbers and letters doesn’t require much thought – particularly so soon after being in an environment like my political science class, not to mention my other studies in that last semester. As I click click clicked on the keyboard and my mind roamed, I thought about Rawls’s theory, and truly felt that it made sense, that our world would be a more just and fair place if Rawls’s principles of justice were the groundwork for our government.

I haven’t referred to the text in a long time – this is just off the top of my head, and only a small part of that heavy book's detailed arguments. Imagine that you have a kind of selective amnesia, in which you know nothing of the details of yourself or your experiences. However, you know there is at least one person in the older generation whom you care about, and at least one person in the younger generation whom you care about. If one of those people experienced a catastrophic event, it’s very likely that you would want to see them taken care of. The political and economic framework should be set up so that a person who experiences a catastrophic event will have a safety net, so her or his life will not be ruined.

This idea makes great sense to me, because we ARE social animals, and we DO have people around us whom we care about. In his speech last week, President Obama said:
One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because
his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know
about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from
Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled
her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her
insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size. (From,
accessed Sept. 18, 2009)
Think about these two cancer patients, and their families. Imagine that man with cancer is your father, your son, your brother or uncle, your best friend, or that the woman is your mother, your daughter, your niece or favorite aunt. Imagine that you are being treated for a life-threatening illness, and suddenly lose your insurance coverage. You’ve had stable employment, health insurance for yourself and your family, you’ve got some debts (house, car, college loans, credit card or two) but decent credit, and you pay your bills on time. Then you’re diagnosed with cancer, and your world is turned inside out: your very life is vulnerable now, as is your family’s emotional and financial stability. The struggle to regain good health is difficult enough WITH health insurance; imagine losing that insurance during your treatment.

In his address to Congress, the President also stated, “[T]here is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds plausible, and I’d like to believe it. What our Senators and Representatives NEED to do, then, is lay out their cards on the other 20 percent, and start looking for creative ways to reach common ground. If they research the issues and options, listen to one another as open-mindedly as they can, and remind themselves that the man from Illinois was someone’s son, and probably someone’s father too, they should be able to find pieces of agreement. The President said, “Now is the season for action.” I believe it’s also the time for cooperation. Fighting one another solves nothing, but working together, we can make real progress toward solutions.