Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

I'm not sure how this book first got on my radar, but remember standing there in the bookstore, with it in my hand, trying to decide if I should get it, or pick up the book I'd originally come for, to give to my granddaughter. Grandmotherness won out, and I put it back on the shelf, in favor of granddaughter's wishlist. This audio copy came my way via the Library Thing's Early Reviewer program shortly after, for which I am grateful to LT, the publisher, and the gods of book selection.

Ben Benjamin is pretty much at rock bottom at the start of this novel.  A tragedy (which unfolds as the book progresses) has shaken his world and taken all that he cared for from his life. Quite literally all that he cared for, because he'd been a stay-at-home dad for his two kids, who, along with his wife, are lost to him. As a last ditch effort to find work, he has completed a course called "The Fundamentals of Caregiving", hoping to find employment as a health care aid/assistant. He ends up working with trev, a 19 year old in the advanced stages Duchenne muscular dystrophy. What Ben finds is that there's a lot a course on caregiving can't prepare you for.

I've been a professional care giver, and a private one as well.  There is no course in the world that can prepare you for the realities of the job, but that's pretty much because there's nothing in the world that can prepare you for life. The rocks and rolls that Ben has to navigate, both in his personal life, and with Trev, are enormous (and sometimes enormously humorous, as well as serious and complex.)  The author deftly portrayed both those moments where life kicks you in the gut (or arse) as well as those where it pats you on the back. Though Ben's life choices may not be mine, I was fully engaged with his story, and the stories of the characters brought in to his world.

One element of this book which came off surprisingly well was the road trip Trev and Ben take to see Trev's estranged father. It introduced a cast of characters and another level of father/child interactions (there are several portrayed in the book, with varying degrees of pathology or success.) The trip also provided Ben and Trev a vehicle (no pun intended) for exploration of their inner and outer worlds. It could have been the downfall of the book, but instead it enhanced it, and brought readers some great characters and scenes.

The story of Ben's family and his loss is interwoven with that of his life with Trev. Realistic, heartrending, and beautifully written. Though I really loved getting this book as an audio, this is one I almost wish I had in hard copy so that I could provide some of the quotes that I found moving. I will look for more books by Mr Evison.

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

I first was introduced to Colin Cotterill via the delightful novel Killed at the Whim of a Hat. What I came away with from that book was an interesting story, non-transparent mystery, realistic characters, all in a part of the world that I am exceedingly unfamiliar with. There was a gentleness to the story, too -- none of the harshness so often found in many of the mysteries on the market these days. Almost and old world charm. (Were I the type to compare books I could drum up a likeness to at least one series set in a third world country, but since I despise it when people say things like "a cross between Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and the Vish Puri, Indian detective novels" I won't.)

This is a different series, featuring Dr Siri Paiboun, who at 72, instead of being able to relax in life, finds himself appointed national coroner in Laos of 1975.  Though he is a physician, he has no training as a coroner, which shouldn't matter, as he is more or less expected to find the cause of death for the bodies presented to him to be pretty much what the newly installed Communist government wants the cause to be. This would be fine, but Siri is not exactly a "play by the rules" kind of guy, and like the Siri familiar to most iPhone owners of today, seeks answers to questions, and often finds them, even if they're not the correct answer. But Siri perseveres to find truths, and that makes the tale that much more interesting.  That he is aided by ghosts of the dead, and some interesting side characters fleshes things out a bit.

Anyhow, I truly enjoyed this book, and suspect that any of Coterill's books will be winners for me.

Honoring Ruthe -- A String of Pearls (Originally written/posted September 18, 2010)

Today would have been my mother's 88th birthday.  It's the first one that I can really focus on since her death.  Last year I was still to shell-shocked with Eric's murder and Heather's injuries to pay much attention to anything.  But time has passed.  And my mother's memory continues to be a gentle balm to my spirit.  She still is teaching me and still is bringing a smile to my heart.

When I was three, the elementary school my brothers (and later I) went to had their usual celebration of Halloween.  The kids wore their costumes to school, had parties filled with lots of sugar, and then proceeded to walk all the sugar off in a neighborhood parade to show off the inventive costumes.  I think it was the same year* one brother (and I think it was Jimmy, but it could have been Eric) went dressed as a mummy.  He completely wrapped himself in strips of cloth for the authentic look.  Unfortunately, on the parade around the school, the strips began to unravel.  As various body parts and skin began to appear, neighbors placed bets on what was underneath.  Luckily, for all concerned, the family jewels were covered by a speedo bathing suit, so some dignity could be preserved. 

With all the excitement of big brothers costuming themselves, I announced to my mother I wanted to dress up, too.  What did I want to be?  A Mommy, came the reply.

"Oh", my mother said.  "What does a Mommy wear?"

"Pearls, a hat and white gloves," I confidently answered.  "And she has a baby."

Bless my mama's heart -- she helped me be a Mommy.

This morning, as I woke up remembering Ruthe, I wanted to do something special to honor her.  My white gloves are soiled, and my hats aren't the sort the 3 year old me had in mind, and my baby is a young man out at Stanford, but I have pearls, my mama's pearls that we kids gave to her on her 63rd birthday, a few years after my father died.  She had always wanted real pearls, but had wanted my father to buy them for her.  His mother had once given her pearls, and she'd returned them, saying that she would wait for her husband to give them to her.  Well, he somehow missed the memo, because she never got them.  We kids decided to each use some of our inheritance to buy her pearls from Eli.  I'd say in the 25 years she had to wear them, they were her most worn piece of jewelry.  When I turned 50, she gave them to me, with the understanding that they were her's until she died, then they were mine.

So this fine September day, I am wearing my Mommy Pearls.  I may be in jeans and a tee shirt but I've got my pearls. I wore them to breakfast, to Belly Dancing, to Yoga, to grocery shopping, to releasing BookCrossing books, and maybe even in my bath tonight.  I wear them in remembrance of beautiful bumma, the remarkable Ruthe, who I am privileged to call both mother and friend.

(*Edited to note that there is a picture of Eric as a snake charmer that year, but I can't find one of the mummy boy, so still don't know if it was Jimmy that year, or Eric another year.  Could have been either.  My brothers both got the creativity gene.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Meeting God in Human Form, by Rick M Chapman

Reading books written by dear friends is always interesting, particularly when they are memoirs. I've known Rick Chapman over half my life. The image of his long form and dear mustachioed face is embedded deeply in my heart. I don't remember the initial meeting, but know that Rick has always been "family" to me -- one of those souls that clicks with mine, with the certainty that in another life, in another time, or maybe in one to come, our lives intertwined.

Rick is a brilliant, fascinating, multifaceted man. I've heard his thoughts on the philosophical and the spiritual (and confess that sometimes it's gone over my simple understanding.) I found this memoir introduced me to different aspects of Rick, some of which I'd seen shine through in this gem of a man, some of which had remained hidden to me. Here before me, in these 300 pages, was a youth in his early 20's, during the 60's, burning with a passion to know God. The man I first met was that same person, but tempered through time and life's lessons, no longer rough and raw. Through this book, I got to see the fire that drew Rick and forged him into that man. It fascinated me, and not just because it was a firsthand account of meeting Meher Baba, but because of the entire view into Rick's life, and into a time like no other. That it also featured people I know and love was an added bonus. I also liked reading his initial experiences in India, especially since the man I met a decade or so after had become so comfortable in that environment. And I confess that I'd forgotten he was a Fulbright scholar.

One thing that fascinated me was the difference between our two paths to God and our travels to India.  He first went seeking, and while that was part of my first trip, too, mine was more of a family journey. My brother and sister lived at the ashram, and the people who were legends to other seekers, were the life companions of my own family. I read about them in weekly letters home and had a glimpse into an intimate world of daily life at Meherabad and Meherazad.  When I met the mandali finally, it was more a comfortable recognition of family initially than meeting the companions of the Master.

My approach to my relationship with the Divine is pretty basic, too. Love God, be kind, do good works, hold fast.  I still screw up a lot, but I keep trying to get back on track. Having grown up in an atheistic/agnostic household, it's been an interesting journey. People who can discourse quite philosophically about spirituality and the soul's journey have usually either intimidated me or made my eyes glaze over. (In fact, when I was in India years ago, I despaired to Mani, Meher Baba's sister,  of my inability to read books about the spiritual journey. She gave me a gift to carry on, a legacy that Baba had given her: the release from reading about it, but the commitment to trying to live a life devoted to God.) Rick never has intimidated or bored me, and did not do so here, either.  In this book, he led me by the hand through the intensity of his discovery of a passion for God. He is a good companion for such travels.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Through the Door, by Jodi McIsaac

I first heard of this book from a friend who lives in the same area the author does. She gave an enthusiastic review, which intrigued  me. She then was kind enough to send me a copy of the book, for which I am grateful. I quite often stay clear of self published books, but there have been a few I've read that have been rather good, and a couple of those have been picked up by publishing houses. I wouldn't be surprised if Jodi McIsaac becomes one of those authors as well.

This book with an interesting premise, a little mystery, and a bit of magic thrown all together. I enjoyed the story, and though there were some rough spots in the plot and writing, over all, it was a good read.

Cedar MCleod raised her daughter Eden alone since the disappearance of Eden's father. He left before learning of the pregnancy, leaving Cedar heartbroken, sad, angry, wondering -- all appropriate things for a woman abandoned by the man she thought loved her. Life though, continued on in a normal way, until Eden suddenly developed an unforseen ability: she could open a door which would lead into another place. In her quest to understand what has happened to her child, Cedar seeks out the family of the man who abandoned her. They, too, have secrets and mysteries. And as Cedar tries to understand what is happening, Eden is spirited off by one of her father's clan, taken across the world to be exploited for the power she has developed. Cedar follows Eden, to save her, protect her, and bring her back, through the door, if she can. There's more at stake than just one little girl, though, and the task is anything but simple.

I recently read another book featuring a group of people who may, or may not be descendants of the kin to the family of Eden's father (I'm being careful not to give too much plot away), so it was interesting to see how that was treated in this novel as opposed to the other one. The blending of folklore into a present day novel can be tricky business, but the author did a fine job. In my opinion, one must always trust there is magic in the world. Though she didn't at the start of the book, I'm pretty sure by the end, Cedar believed in magic, too.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Goodbye, Monroe

Joe Nadel with Eli (on pony) and Monroe
My uncle Monroe died Tuesday night.  He left us years ago, bit by bit as his mind was swallowed into the gaping maw of Alzheimer's. What was left bore no resemblance to the uncle I loved as a child.  It was a bitter, angry shell, confused and lost. But occasionally, a spark would come through. Just like I would occasionally see a glimmer of my father in my uncle's gestures after my father had died, I'd see a flash of that uncle in the old man who lived in his body. But a diseased mind is a tricky thing, and that flash could be extinguished all to suddenly.

There are dozens of stories I could tell, some humorous, some with great pathos, about how Alzheimer's claims a soul. The moment that comes to mind most often was a few years ago, when we took the train to New York for the funeral of my cousin Jon, who died suddenly.* We came up the night before and stayed in Brooklyn. As we stood at the deli counter, getting our breakfast before heading into town for the service, an old man wandered in, followed by a woman. It took me a moment to realize that the frail but dapper man, his full head of silver hair neatly combed, was my uncle. It was only by happenstance that we met at that deli, but we shared a meal with them.  My aunt was still shell-shocked at the sudden death of her eldest child. My uncle was dazed, but somehow unfazed. He recognized me, once I identified myself, but a few minutes later, told me he had a niece named Amy. Did I know her? Then his eyes clouded, as he tried to remember.

"I have a son named Jon. I have a son named Jon, and he died. He died. Did you know him?"

His bewilderment and grief clutched my heart. I reached for my husband's hand, and squeezed hard.

"Yes, I knew him. And, I loved him. I love you too, Uncle Monroe. I'm so sorry Jon is gone."

"Jon's gone?" he replied. "I have a son named Jon. What's your name?"

At the memorial, friends and family spoke. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute. And my heart, already broken by the sudden death of my cousin, shattered even more, as I saw my uncle looking around, and heard him ask, "Where's Jon?"

Not too long ago, my Uncle turned 90. He outlived most of his generation in that family. He was frail, confused, occasionally combative, and difficult. His world had changed as much to him as he had to us.  He'd always taken great care of his looks, meticulous in the care of his face and hair. He might have weighed next to nothing near the end, but he still kept his hair combed, even if he used a toothbrush to do it instead of a comb.

Goodbye Monroe. Though your mind and spirit left us years ago, courtesy of Alzheimer's, your body just caught up. I have golden memories of you from childhood, my daddy's baby brother. And it makes me smile to think that though you didn't know who you were, you were happy to be 90, with all your own teeth and a full head of hair.

*The boy with laughter in his eyes

The boy with the laughter in his eyes (redux)

(Written Monday June 30, 2008 on the train home from New York City)

I went to visit Jon yesterday. It had been years since I'd seen him, but that didn't matter. Mention Jon, and my heart smiles. The image that comes to mind is one I only actually saw in a photograph. I vaguely remember the picture being taken. It's more a memory of the "feeling" of the time. The grown-ups are grouped on the old brown sofa in our living room on Walden Road, probably in 1958 or at the latest 1959. (It was the couch that later caught fire and the undamaged half became my first bed when I outgrew my crib. When the fire broke out my big brother ran upstairs and scooped me from my crib, carrying me in his arms to safety. I told Daddy, when he came home, that Bobby had carried me in his arms "like Superman".) Sitting at their feet, if you looked at the black and white print, you'd see a little blond girl, with her sun suit strap slipping off one tanned shoulder and the other arm thrown around a patient looking beagle. She's looking away from the camera, almost as if she knows that the star of that photograph is the small brown haired bundle of energy sitting next to her. He's looking straight at the camera, his face fully lit up by his delight with life, exuberance spilling out of his toddler's body. His smile takes up most of his face. There is laughter in his eyes. He is palpable joy. He is Jonnie. He is my cousin.

I suppose there was a time when I didn't know him, but it was very brief, and hidden deep in the realms of earliest memories. He was born a month before I turned one, and my memories of the time before Jonnie are very, very faint, if at all. I can't say we grew up exactly "together", as we lived several states apart, but in those childhood years, our families visited often and we children grew to count on the security of one another when the grownups went off to do whatever it was grownups did in the 50's and early 60's. I'd visit his family in the Bronx or they'd come to our home. Sometimes, there'd be a little awkwardness as we became reacquainted with each other, and learned the leaps and bounds we'd each taken in life since the last visit. Two smart, focused little kids, checking out each other, testing to see had done what since the last visit.

There were some things I was better at (swimming, playing with large groups of people, smoozing the grownups) and some he was better at (math, being precise in saying what he meant, remembering facts and letting me know I didn't.) But we couldn't outdo the other's love of books. We each loved to read. I remember him being surprised that a girl read boy-oriented books. I like to think it was something that made him like me a little bit more.

There are other childhood memories-- playing on the merry-go-round on the playground behind my home, swimming in a saltwater pool in the Bronx, watching fireflies from the stoop of Mikell Avenue, sharing a joke or a funny turn of phrase (we both seem to have developed a dry humor. Perhaps it's genetic?) putting on a show for our Grandmother-- but I'd rather remember my absolute favorite conversation with Jon. It was when we both were in our early 20's, unmarried, neither with a prospect in site. He came through St Louis on business, and stopped to visit. We went out for a drink, and spend hours talking. I found that the little boy with the laughter in his eyes had grown into a thoughtful and very insightful young man. I liked him a lot. There was an amazing intensity in those blue eyes, but a real vulnerability, too.

Maybe it was our 20 some years of knowing each other. Maybe it was the scotch. But regardless, he let me into a little space of his soul, and I have never forgotten. I don't remember the exact words but the gist of what he said was beautiful.

"I know the world values money and material success. I know that succeeding means making more and more money, and getting ahead in business. But what I want is a woman I can open my heart to and build a life with. A woman I can love completely. To me, that would be success."

Jon found that woman, and built a life (and rebuilt several houses in Brooklyn in the process.) They started a family. Their oldest son has my father's name as his middle name, and that always touched me more than I ever thought possible. Every time I heard about Jon, he only grew in my esteem. The boy with the laughter in his eyes had grown up well. And I looked forward to getting to know him again as adults. It was something I planned to do.

I went to visit Jon yesterday. I went with family and friends, who gathered together to remember him. Jon died suddenly a few days ago, leaving a stunned and shell-shocked group those of us who loved him. At the memorial, the words spoken by those who had been close to him these years when I was not gave me both enormous joy and great sadness. I missed my chance. I thought I had time. The boy with the laughter in his eyes had indeed grown into a remarkable, remarkable man. I am honored to be in his family, and grieve more that I could imagine at his passing. I grieve for his wife and sons, and for his parents, and for his brother, sister-in-law and nieces. I grieve for the missed opportunity.

At his memorial, Jon's best friend Joe spoke some real words of wisdom. I'll paraphrase him and add a bit, too, for it helps me to put some sense of something into the senselessness of loss. If you love someone, tell them, don’t wait till tomorrow, tell them now. If you miss someone, tell them, don’t wait, you may not have it tomorrow. If you’ve been thinking about someone whether it’s a friend, family, an old lover, the kid you grew up with, whatever, if you’ve been thinking about them, get in touch with them. If you haven’t had a physical, get one. If you haven’t updated your will, do so. Take the time now, take it now. For those who love you and those you love.

Goodbye, Jon. I miss you. I always thought we'd have time, that you'd be there. I'm glad you had such a love-filled and full life. I'm glad you have such wonderful sons and such fabulous friends. I'm glad you found the woman of your heart. I just wish there was a tomorrow, so I could tell you I love you.

From the New York Times
Jon Nadel
NADEL--Jon. Born August 13, 1957. Passed away suddenly on June 25th, 2008. Loving husband to Kim, beloved father of Jamie and Skye, son of Monroe and Evelyn. Director of Membership and Connectivity with the International Securities Exchange. We, as well as all who knew him, will miss his intelligence, his keen sense of humour and fine wit. Services will be held at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, Amsterdam Avenue corner 91st Street, New York, 2pm, Sunday June 29, 2008.
Published in the New York Times from 6/28/2008 - 6/29/2008.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Walking through memories

The afternoon light has just begun to take on the gleams of autumn, but not yet willing to release the intensity of summer. I love that time of September, when the balmy air wraps around like the softest cashmere, sliding like silk. As a girl, I dubbed it air bathing: when the air temperature and body temperature melded together like slipping into a glorious pool of water.

Walking around the city of my heart, which has been my home for many years, I found myself on a journey. Though I've lived roughly half of my days here in Charleston on James Island, the rest has been downtown, almost exclusively in Harleston Village. On this sultry afternoon, my steps wandered the streets of my past -- stopping at those places I had called home.

When I first relocated back to Charleston, it was shortly after my father had died. I searched for a place to make my nest which would allow me easy access to my work at the hospital, but, more important, it would be accessible to my mother, and would have a place for her to visit any time she wished. I packed up my car in St Louis, and, together with my cat, Tezra, began the journey that ended on Wentworth Street, in a 2 bedroom apartment, carved out of an old single family home. It was scruffy, definitely more student housing than that of a more permanent sort. Though it met my requirements, my neighbors were loud, and the cockroaches plentiful. I have some dreadful memories of living there, for with it came the end of a relationship, but I also have some wonderful ones. I recall making curtains for the bedroom with my mom. They matched the linens I'd purchased just after moving in.  (I still have the sheets we bought together. I use them up at the cabin, and they make me smile to remember the two of us sewing. Though we both loved to work with our hands, and were quite good at some things, we were terrible seamstresses. The only thing that kept those curtains from looking horrible was that the fabric was pretty.)  Or how we'd sit in the rather depressing living room, listening to "A Prarie Home Companion" on the radio. I tried to make that dark little apartment a home, but never was very successful.  When a wonderful little home a few blocks over came up for rent, I jumped at the chance, even though it meant I'd need to find a roommate.

It was just a slight tumble over to the cottage on Gadsden, but there was a world of difference between the two. Despite the street that floods in high tide, and the miniscule kitchen, I'd move back into that place in a skinny minute. Though the roommate situation turned out to be the stuff of stories (not fairy tale kind, but the kind where the roommate ended up with a man who married her for her fortune and then tried to kill her.  I knew the marriage was doomed when the song she danced with her father, where her groom cut in, was "The Tennessee Waltz.") it was a great place. I hosted my first oyster roast there, got a crush on the boy next door, tried my hand at gardening, and turned out some great supper parties for friends, despite the miniscule kitchen.  But alas, the landlord's son got married and wanted the cottage for himself, so I packed up the cat and moved yet again.

Luckily, there was a place around the corner, near a close friend. It was a comfortable duplex, and like its two predecessors, had a spot for my mother to visit, though she only came a time or two. It was the same shade of Pepto Bismol pink, but had lots of hard wood and deco interior elements. I was living there when I met Javaczuk. He was up in DC, but we managed to see each other regularly and talk daily. I would come home from the night shift at the hospital, and he would call every morning to wish me sweet dreams.  I remember standing up on the 7th floor of the hospital, watching Calhoun Street in the dawn hours, to see if I could find his car as he drove into town for a visit. My roommate of the time was a sweet, sincere young woman, who was studying to be a physician. Though she was skeptical about my sudden, passionate, long distance romance, she was a good sort, and feigned enthusiasm when he and I got engaged the second time we saw each other, 6 weeks after we'd met. She wished me well when I decided to follow my heart and move up to DC.

A few years later, we moved back to Charleston, this time with my mother. Together we purchased a home on Smith Street -- a glorious Queen Anne Victorian, where I thought I'd stay forever. Oh the memories from that house -- the laughter and love. It was a bountiful harbor for the family, and was there that our son was born. It weathered some losses, a hurricane or two, but still stood proud. My favorite spot was the curved portion of the front porch, where we set up a swing. I could sit there and listen to the sounds of the street, the birds in our garden, and the laughter of children playing. We had our reasons for moving, to numerous to list, but all valid and real. I was always sad that we left downtown, but it was something that had to be done at that time.

Life has its cycles. I feel the turn of another one for the two of us. We're beginning to shed ourselves of the possessions (both ours and others) that have built up in this lovely home by the lake we have here on the island. Our souls are yearning to find a spot in the city of our courtship again.  We are Charleston bound.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore

So, what's life like if your father was an unspeakable monster, who killed not only your mother, but the whole soul of a kingdom, and you're the orphaned princess who has ruled the kingdom since his death at the hands of one of your dearest friends? That's where Bitterblue takes up: eight years after the ending of Graceling and something like 35 after the telling of the companion book Fire.

The story has been told elsewhere. I will say that the characters were well drawn, even those with secrets to hide. Bitterblue's growth from a sheltered girl into a young woman of honor, strength, and charity was nice to read. Plus there's that lesson of trust to be learned. What I was struck with most of all is the question of how do you heal wrongs to a society -- not just the physical scars, but the emotional and mental ones. How does a society learn to function again when it's entire core has been ripped and shredded? It's something we see all too often these days, when someone takes a plane, or a gun, or a bomb, or a gas chamber and shatters a piece of the world.  The reparation must be handled with compassion, dignity, and respect, as well as righting the wrongs that still exist.  That a girl of 18 must do this, let alone one who has been orphaned, sheltered, protected, and isolated from what the real world is, becomes a huge task.  It won't be done quickly or easily. We're still recovering from the Holocaust and 9/11. As long as there are people alive to remember and feel those horrors, the wounds may heal, but the scar will still exist, unforgotten.

There are a few other things of Cashore's writing that I especially like. She takes a non-traditional view on love and relationships, both heterosexual and same sex ones. This is refreshing in a YA series. And the dynamics between the various couples also is interesting/varied. But fiery or playful, they do ring true. Though there is some romancing, it takes a back seat to the righting of a damaged kingdom.

Another thing I like about Cashore's writing is her world building.  Fascinating. When reading the descriptions of Bitterblue's kingdom, I was hearkened back to some of the descriptions of the Dells in Fire, where Leck had fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. I won't go into more detail on that here, for fear of spoilers, but Cashore has done a great job.

Also, as I was reading the book, I was struck by how good and how detailed the cypher work was. That will be a true education for anyone reading it, who has an interest in the subject. Plus the bits and bobs of healing that came about.  Interesting for this nurse.

Finally, the art for this one, especially the inside covers and some of the final pictures and maps were superb. I want to see some of the art, tapestry, and statues that Leck collected in person, but until then I have CAshore's words, and these fine graphics to help me along.