Two good books you’ve not heard of

Discovering great new books is always fun – but when they’re written by friends or family it’s joyously so. Friend and former neighbor Donna Levin has a new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home which I’ve ordered but not yet read; it involves a mother and her autism spectrum son, a theme explored by WordPress blogger friend Antoinette Banks of Tailor Made Life.

Literary talent in the family, though, what special fun. Here’s a story of two very different, very interesting books you’ve probably not heard of – but may want to check out.

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Iceland: bucolic, and enticing

Adam Nichols, who is married to my niece and thus I claim him as nephew, is co-author of a fascinating new book, The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627. It’s a tale familiar to Icelanders for centuries, and now making its way into other countries. It’s also a tale that can make you think perhaps the perils of the 21st century aren’t so bad after all.

The Corsairs, when in need of either ransom money or cheap labor or both, simply took off from Africa in pirate ships, swooped down on a likely community and carried off the citizens to sell in the Barbary Coast slave trade. In between times they intercepted ships on the high seas and made off with whatever they found. Human rights were a long way off.

Barbary Corsairs

Barbary Corsairs in action

In 1627, such a raid took place in the Icelandic village where Rev. Olafur was a Lutheran minister. A few villagers escaped, some were killed, and the rest – including Rev. Olafur and his wife and children – were taken off to be sold as slaves. At some point the good reverend was released and sent on his way to raise ransom money from the King of Denmark. No spoiler alert: the tale won’t be followed any farther here. To history’s benefit, Rev. Olafur kept a diary, carefully noting details of his journeys and somewhat dispassionately relating what happened to his friends and family. It is that diary that translates into The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson.

Travels of Rev Olafur cover

Cover photo

 Adam Nichols, a longtime English teacher and author of nine books of fantasy fiction, lived in Iceland for several years. He worked with co-author Karl Smari Hreinsson to create this edition, published by Catholic University of America Press, which is exhaustively annotated to help 21st  century readers follow this 17th century tale. Adam, who is also #1 errand-runner/ taxi driver/ general assistant to my 89-year-old sister, is working on a new book about the Barbary Corsairs, a biography of one of the leaders of the 1627 raid.

Jumping several centuries forward from the Barbary Corsairs, a tale of the 20th century “Greatest Generation” is told by my niece Leslie Sinyard, in her new book Don’t Look. . . Just Jump: The Life of Olive Hammons Weathersby. Far more than an oral history, Don’t Look. . . Just Jump brings to life not just the subject – who died shortly after her 93rd birthday in April, 2013 – but a generation and a kinder, gentler time. Olive’s sweetheart, who would become a widely recognized entomologist/professor and her husband for nearly five adventurous decades, sent letters from the battlefields of World War II wishing they could go out for a Coke date. If either of the couple felt really strongly about something, a ‘Darn!’ might enter the conversation.

Don't Look Just Jump

But the Olive Weathersby story is no timid tale. The title refers to the time when she was the first civilian to parachute from a crashing airplane, and the adventures the couple shared were anything but bland. His work took them to Egypt, where they lived on an island in the Nile; to Tehran, where she first experienced living in a Muslim community; and to Japan, where her kitchen window featured a view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Eventually they settled in Athens, Georgia to raise their two adopted sons in the turbulent times of the late 20th century.

Leslie Sinyard, who shared a deep Christian faith with the woman her children called their “Athens grandmother,” spent six years interviewing “Miss Olive” and tracking the story. For someone whose career was in business and finance, she turns out to be a remarkable literary storyteller – with a remarkable story to tell.

Breast Cancer? Ask questions!

In honor of International Women’s Day (even if I didn’t quite get it finished in time,) this brief message is about a book recently re-issued by Dr. William H. Goodson III that should be in the hands of every woman with breast cancer, wanting to understand breast cancer or helping someone who is going through breast cancer.

Pink flower

It’s Your Body . . . ASK is a guidebook for talking with your doctor about breast cancer. I would’ve given anything to have had it when I had breast cancer, and a mastectomy, a dozen years ago. Maybe I would’ve made different decisions, maybe not. But the reality is this: most women, unless they have had medical training, would never think to ask a question like “What are the side effects of removing axillary nodes?” Personally, I didn’t think to ask about nodes at all. Other than considering the size of my cancer, in fact, questions I might have asked about its rate of growth, alternative treatments, follow-up therapies – – were mostly not discussed because I didn’t know to ask them.

This is a book that gives not just answers (it offers many answers about families, about hormone-based therapies and other issues) but more importantly: questions. If you, a breast cancer patient, know the questions, your doctor needs to give you the answers. What’s that lump about? What about these other pains and symptoms I have? What are all of my treatment options?

(I would say, here, Full disclosure: Dr, Goodson is a friend of mine. But it would be more braggadocio than disclosure. Bill Goodson and I shared a few discussion program podiums It's Your Bodyseveral years ago when his gripping novel about sexual violence against women, The Blue-Eyed Girl and my Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade were both newly released. I’m a writer. He’s a Senior Scientist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute; a recognized leader in breast cancer care who has been (among other things) a Professor of Surgery at the University of California San Francisco and President of the San Francisco Medical Society, and is listed in The Best Doctors in America.)

Credentials aside, It’s Your Body . . . ASK is worth a look. It offers a pathway through turbulent times, which can be far less turbulent if you have some help in steering your own ship.

Check it out.

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

diego-rivera-murals-sfai

The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Farewell to a Not-All-Bad Year

2016

Farewell to 2016? People all over the globe are saying good riddance.

There are those of us in the U.S. who believe that climate change is real, that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and the vast majority of Mexicans are neither rapists nor murderers, that women deserve better than to be denied rights and casually groped. Even those who believe otherwise admit reason and decency suffered some killer blows in the past year.

Poor 2016. Throw in global goings-on with the Brexit vote and the tragedies in Syria, Venezuela and too many troubled spots to mention, and it would seem there’s not a lot good to be said for the year. But it actually wasn’t all bad.

For openers, there are the things that didn’t happen: Nobody let loose a nuclear missile that would have begun the destruction of the planet. The Mosul Dam didn’t fail. Northern California didn’t have the devastating earthquake for which it is overdue. Even the luxury tower set to zoom up and block this writer’s 7th-floor balcony view of the far-off San Bruno mountains didn’t materialize. (OK, we know it’s coming. New York developer has the right to build to 240 feet, but so far the city says he can’t have an exemption to go 200+ feet higher.) So from the frivolous – which a 7th floor view certainly is – to the horror scenario, 2016 could surely have been worse.

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And as for the good news? Glancing back over the posts on this site over the old year is one way to find a lot of it. A random few:

Mutual support and understanding among different religions was alive and well in 2016, as it will continue to be in the new year – at least in much of the U.S. Several times I wrote about events sponsored in San Francisco by the S.F. Interfaith Council, such as the Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast – at which an overflow crowd representing people of all faith communities reaffirmed their commitment to human rights, social justice and world peace before launching into a rousing chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Philanthropy is alive and well too. In May, a 3-year-old friend of ours decided to open his piggy bank and give the money ($32.60) to his two favorite charities: the local library and the hospital where he and his baby-sister-to-be were born. His philanthropy spurred several matching gifts. Who says you have to be a zillionaire to be a philanthropist and do good in the world?

More than once I wrote about one of my real life heroes, Dr. Willie Parker, an African American physician determined to keep abortion access available to those who are denied reproductive healthcare: most often poor women of color. Nothing will slow down Willie Parker.

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And speaking of heroes, In January I was fortunate to be part of a collaborative celebration of Martin Luther King Day, with a predominately white church and its predominantly black partner church, affirming King’s message that only light can drive out darkness, and only love can drive out hate. It’s only a small effort in one small part of the globe, but as members of the two communities work (and play and sing) together, light shines on racial injustice.

There have been other optimistic highlights, such as the Internet Archive celebrating its 20th anniversary. The IA is a mind-bending, increasingly successful effort to make All Knowledge Available to All, for free. Impossible? Believe. Another blog highlighted another impressive physician, Dr. Angelo Volandes, who was touring the country last year with his new book The Conversation. Volandes is on a campaign to end aggressive, unnecessary, unwanted and often cruel end-of-life treatment. What happens in emergency rooms and intensive care units during the last few days of life for millions of Americans is an expensive disgrace; Volandes’ efforts will help change that.

In August I was caught in the middle of Delta’s computer meltdown, and spent some interesting hours trying to get from Atlanta to San Francisco. What was worth writing about were the many acts of kindness among airport crowds. They reminded me of flying from San Francisco to Portland OR several days after 9/11, when it seemed everyone in America wanted only to be kind to everyone else.

That spirit is still here, somewhere; we just need to recover it after a bruising year.

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Talking Your Way into a Better Death

Angelo Volandes

Angelo Volandes

“If you do something to my body that I do not want,” says physician/author Angelo Volandes, “it is assault and battery. But if I do the same thing to you in (a medical situation,) it is standard of care.”

Volandes thinks this last is a bad idea. He is on a campaign to change the way American doctors and patients, and indeed the country at large, understand what is done to American bodies at life’s end. He spoke of this campaign, and his new book The Conversation that outlines it, at a recent Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco. When he’s not taking time out to promote the book and the campaign, Volandes practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is Co-Founder and President of Advance Care Planning Decisions, a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving patients’ quality of care.

“Ninety percent of people want to die at home,” Volandes says; “most die in hospitals. There is a misalignment between the type of medical care they want and what they get.” About this unwanted care? “If you’re in the hospital and get unwanted care you never bargained for, I still get paid for it.”

After watching too many patients endure end-of-life treatments he was sure they would not have chosen, Volandes started an unusual practice: taking every one of his patients to visit the intensive care unit, and some to visit the dialysis unit. Once they gained a better understanding of what some of the aggressive treatments – CPR, breathing machines, etc – actually looked like, the patients almost always moved away from “Do everything” to comfort care as their choice.

The basic change Volandes believes is needed begins with a conversation between physician and patient. Those conversations do happen, and there is now Medicare reimbursement, but few physicians find them easy, and few patients know how to inaugurate them or what to say. “Never did a senior physician have to certify that I could talk to a patient,” Volandes says. “The patient needs to know ‘What are the questions I need to ask? What are my options?’ Life’s final chapter needs to be written – but the problem is, I’m writing it (instead of the patient.)”

This writer has been advocating for individuals to write their own final chapters for over two decades. With others writing those chapters instead, the costs are monumental and unnecessary – and millions of Americans die after undergoing painful indignities they would never have chosen. Physician aid-in-dying – approved by a majority of doctors and 7 in 10 Americans and now legal in five states – is one key piece of the puzzle. But the elephant-size puzzle piece is how to get every one of us to make known, well before those “end-of-life” days arrive, what medical care we do or do not want.

Volandes’ conversations could put that piece in place. Every person alive who takes time for the conversation (and for writing it all down) will likely die a better death.

 

 

Anna Quindlen on form & feminism

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen, on tour with her new novel Miller’s Valley, sat down for a rollicking interview with author Kelly Corrigan recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Within an hour they had traded profound thoughts and raucous asides – some printable and some not – on topics ranging from literary form to family histories to feminism, from death & dying to the prosecution of rapists.

A few random excerpts:

Re Miller’s Valley – which reviewers have described as “a quintessential small town story about a family you will never forget” – Quindlen said she felt early on that she wanted it to be written in the first person (Mimi, who grows from an 11-year-old into her sixties in the book, is the narrator) because she wanted to leave “some ambiguity at the end, and that’s only possible with a first person narrator. There is a kind of intimacy you can only develop through the first person.”

On how much of Miller’s Valley – and her seven earlier novels – is taken from her own life: “When I was a newspaper reporter people thought I made things up. Now I make things up and people think they’re real.”

On families, literary and otherwise: Corrigan, noting Quindlen’s untroubled childhood and long-lasting, happy marriage, asked if “people who have not lived through deep dysfunction” can still produce great writing. “I had a happy childhood,”Quindlen responded, “but I remember always feeling that there was no place for me in the world.” Then she listed three things that have made her the (highly acclaimed) writer she is: her mother’s illness and death – Quindlen, the eldest of five siblings, left college in her sophomore year to care for her cancer-stricken mother – the “good luck to be a street reporter in New York City,” and being a mom to her three now-grown children.

Corrigan followed with a family tale of her own. After calling her mother to tell her about an award just received, Corrigan was dismayed by her mother’s being “not very impressed.” So after a few moments of disappointment she called back to find out why. Her mother said, “I’m glad you called back. I’m jealous.” To which Quindlen added, “We all said, ‘I don’t want the kind of life my mother had.’”

Quindlen 4.11.16

On memoir (both authors have produced well-received memoirs) v fiction: “In memoirs there is stuff you can’t talk about,” Corrigan commented, “like jealousies, or sex with your husband. But in fiction we can be more honest about what hangs us up.”

“How’s feminism going?” Corrigan asked toward the end of the conversation. “We (feminists) are, like God, everywhere,” Quindlen replied. Concerning one major issue of the feminist movement, Corrigan mentioned data that “reported rapes are up.” Possibly, she added, because for so long rapes went unreported.” But Quindlen noted ruefully that “fairly recently, in New York, you couldn’t prosecute without a third party witness. “Someone had to walk in during the event, preferably a nun or a policeman.”

Asked to name her favorite rising feminist, Quiundlen paused only briefly before saying “Lena Dunham. She immediately used her fame to help others. Every book event she does is tied to the local Planned Parenthood.” Citing the oft-repeated feminist mantra Learn, Earn, Return, Quindlen said Dunham “is doing all three at the same time.” And Quindlen couldn’t resist getting in a plug for another woman she admires, “Hillary Rodham, as I like to call her, not using her slave name – is best qualified, and will make a great President.”

 

Presidential Politics & P. J. O’Rourke

O'Rourke at CClub

P. J. O’Rourke

Journalist/satirist P.J. O’Rourke breezed through San Francisco on a recent book tour for his weighty new book (640-page Thrown Under the Omnibus) and left no presidential candidate un-skewered.

O’Rourke opened with a list of candidates – “Clinton, Bush, Fiorina, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Christie, O’Malley, and Trump. That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world.” And from that summary he plunged into a commentary on the candidates themselves:

Hillary Clinton “retains her iron grip on second place. Whoever’s in first place is so far out we don’t know who it is yet. Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as Secretary of State to visit every country that later blew up in her face. On the upside, she’s familiar with the White House. She knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke-missile launch briefcase is hidden.”

Bernie Sanders? “Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. Let me give you the dictionary definition of ‘socialist.’ A socialist is somebody who will take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of meth addicts in the backwoods of Vermont. Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe. Great idea. Europe has had a swell track record for 100 years now. Make America more like Europe? Where can we even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people that it would take to make America more like Europe?

Carly Fiorina – “If she runs America like she ran Hewlett-Packard, it’d be great as long as you shorted the stock. H-P stock fell 65% between July, 1999 and February, 2005. I can forgive Carly, but my Keogh Plan never will.

Jeb Bush has everything. He’s young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, a successful businessman, and a two-term governor of Florida – where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP. Jeb Bush has just one problem, the name problem. But don’t worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everybody likes him… and he only served one term, so he’s constitutionally eligible to run again.”

Ben Carson is “doing okay unless you’re one of the fact-checkers. He’s a genius brain surgeon. I’m saying please quit running for president and get back to work because we need you. Maybe he could fix George W and Jeb Bush’s conjoined heads.”

Rand Paul? “Rand thinks the government should go by the rule ‘Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.’ I call it the Hillary and Bill Clinton principle: ‘Hillary, mind your own business; and Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’ But Rand Paul isn’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian. His libertarianism appeals to those who consider themselves ‘fiscal conservatives and social liberals.’ This means they want to get high and have sex while saving money; and who doesn’t? But what candidate’s going to admit that in public?

Marco Rubio’s “got kids; I love kids. But he’s got to stop it with the abortion stuff. Really, Republicans, don’t make it illegal, make it retroactive. A kid gets to be 25 – zap.”

Personally, O’Rourke says he supports Donald Trump, because of something the great political satirist H.L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Trump’s “chief goal is to be on TV,” O’Rourke says. “As president he can be on TV 24/7. Plus, he can yell ‘You’re fired!’ all he wants. Trump will grow the American economy the way he grew his own, with bad debt, bad debt and more bad debt. Trump has ‘restructured’ $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt; ‘restructured’ means he didn’t pay it. We Americans know a leader when we see one. Trump’s foreign policy will be to build hundreds of Trump casinos, Trump hotels and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqa, Kandahar and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. Hell, it might just work.”

O'Rourke & Caen

O’Rourke with Melissa Caen

O’Rourke delivered these – and other – political opinions at a Commonwealth Club of California event moderated by Melissa Caen. Caen, a lawyer best known as an astute but light-hearted columnist and TV commentator, said by way of introduction that she couldn’t believe her luck in being asked to interview O’Rourke. In her writing, she said, she had for years “shamelessly stolen” from his satiric observations. Writers today will find it easier to do that, with the release of Thrown Under the Omnibus, a nearly three-pound anthology of O’Rourke’s “funniest, most outrageous, most controversial and most loved pieces.” Copies were selling briskly after the Commonwealth Club talk.