Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky, Polish immigrant to NYC in the early 20th century, beats all odds and becomes a successful, independent American woman. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the dirty, hungry, hand-to-mouth existence of living in the Lower East Side as a young woman in a family of women all supporting their Torah-hugging father who does not work but who shouts obscenities at them, telling them women are worthless. Lovely! Sara runs away from home after her father is duped into buying an empty grocery story in Elizabeth, NJ, with the money that he got from selling his oldest daughter into slave-marriage to a fishmonger. Her other sisters’ marriages are also grim affairs of abuse and neglect. Sara works her ass off, ironing and studying night school, then putting herself through college to become a teacher. She marvels at the “real Americans” at college– these pink playthings that have not seen any hardships and that are consumed with picnics and sororities. Working her way through college, she balks at having to take a “physical education” required course, asking how much they’re paid for their sweat. The dean gets her out of this requirement after she breaks a hurdle in disgust. She wins an essay contest (with $1000 prize) and heads back to NYC in grand style, picking out a clean, well-lit apartment before starting work as a public teacher. She eventually goes to visit her family, finding her mother dying and her father scheming about who to marry next. Not content to leave us with loose ends, she ends up marrying the principal of her school and taking in her father to live out his dying days.
Published in 1925, a great glimpse into the real life of women in the early 20th c.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A disappointing read, yet another book dying for an editor to wrap things up more tightly. Not to say that his plot tightness wasn’t there– just too obvious, knowing that Natasha’s souvenir nutcracker was destined to be in Havaa’s suitcase as soon as we got the second and third hint (and more) about the goddamn suitcase containing souvenirs. And only an idiot could write lines like, “A sex worker was one thing, but a weekend hiker?” as Natasha reaches the border attempting to escape Chechnya and is shocked to find that she must hike up a mountain (but becoming a prostitute, No Big Deal). Eyeroll.
Plotwise– Sonja’s the kickass surgeon who comes back from London to find her sister after the first Chechnyan war, takes over the local hospital and blearily takes in Akhmed (incompetent doctor and decent portraitist) and Havaa (young daughter of abducted and fingerless Dokka). Natasha is Sonja’s missing sister, we find blown to bits when attempting to shoot a Federal soldier who attacked her.
Graphic, gratuitously disturbing descriptions of torture, amputations, war. Dumb title. Long winded ending that hilariously, is redeemed (unintentionally) by the next page’s Author Note, stating in clipped, nasally voice, “In writing this novel I drew from the following sources.” A book about Chechnya written by a white American dude? Avoid.

The Watch Tower

Stupendously creepy, a book that got under my skin and drove me to distraction, having to violently toss it away whenever my expectations of freedom were dashed again and again. Harrower is masterful at building a crescendo, the discomfort grows, you as a reader want the girls to discover that they simply can walk out the door and start a new life away from their torturer.
The story bristles with unease from the beginning, when their mother comes to claim them from boarding school in rural Australia after their father’s death. This mother lies in bed all day and forces her children to tend to her, to find work to support her in Sydney, and eventually abandons them and heads to England. The oldest daughter, Laura, marries her boss at the box factory, thinking she’s found protection and security, but ending up with a mouthful of sand and dreams of oasis. Felix Shaw, the evildoer of the story, does everything he can to make her feel on tenterhooks, uncomfortable, including selling the house she loves as punishment for going out for a walk. Part of the rationale for marrying Shaw was to protect her younger sister, Clare, to allow Clare to finish school. Felix goes back on his promise, enlists her in business classes to learn shorthand instead.

His normally so evasive eyes were now obscenely eager to make contact with other eyes, stalked them, sought them out with a strange and gloating pleasure, somehow smeared them with the filth of his own mind, gloating into them with a threatening and vile deliberation. He dared them to look away. He dared them to speak. Craven, in total submission, ruined, he wanted them to be.

When she finally revots, mid-story (don’t get your hopes up, it doesn’t last):

Laura had felt her nerves straining, all but spent, for that instant when not Felix exactly but things, the omnipresent, terrible, invisible examiner, would call, ‘Enough!’
Now –
She stared at the table, dully understanding that that absolutely vital relief was as far away as it had ever been. Instead there were to be new burdens, new strivings, new sets of books, new unreasonable reasons for silence and labour and putting her down with his eyes with that amazing look of arrogance.
‘No!’ she said aloud. ‘No!’ she said to the waiting table. She felt a sudden tearing sensation as if half the contents of her head had been violently catapulted off from her. Like someone pushing through dense brush, she went to her bedroom, tugged on a coat and grabbed a handbag. No one was about. She went swiftly outside, and up the path to the street.

Clare’s heightened sensitivity:

What was she looking for? What did she miss? And why did the world and the weirdness and significance of captives, cats, faces and buildings strike her with fresh surprise daily, as if she had arrived from another time and place, expecting the earth to be much different?
We could do anything, and we do this, what we do do. How lacking – How lacking in –

But the world, poor world, was as over-burdened with cleverness as with stupidity, and in a sense (lacking this) did they not amount to the very same thing? Oh he’s clever, Clare thought, but who’s good? Who’s good? Who’s good?
And it seemed that in finding the words for this question she had found them for all longing, and every question. For this meant everything.
I want to be in the presence of someone good.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

A well-written book about a difficult topic that is necessary to confront yet all too easily skated around: one’s death, and the terms on which to face it. Gawande discusses the lack of training that he only recently received on how to ask questions that get people to recognize the severity of their condition and to outline their goals (“I’ll deal with anything as long as I can eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV”). There’s a lot of detail on how exactly the body falls apart, the loss of 40% of muscle in your jaw, the loosening of teeth, the shrinking of brain (so that it rattles about if you hit your head). A great section on assisted living’s focus on helping the infirm LIVE rather than nursing homes that were the offshoot of hospitals trying to free up beds after poorhouses stuck so many elderly in the hospital (1954 federal funding to build separate custodial units for patients needing extra recovery time – “nursing” homes); the successful transformation of one assisted living facility with an influx of dogs, cats, and 100 birds. Another option discussed is the idea of hospice– trying to help people live the best possible day, not sacrifice today for the fantasy of 20 more years, to control the pain, and ultimately to die at home.