Tuesday, December 30, 2014

FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL by Sheri Fink (non-fic)

I feel sure most of us have etched in our minds those horrific scenes on t.v. during and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.  The intensity of what we were viewing was unrelenting for days and the consequences and aftermath has gone on for years.  Sheri Fink, a physician herself, has done extensive research into the disaster at Memorial Hospital and the subsequent charge of murder that was brought against Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses who were on duty at the hospital for the 5 days during and after the hurricane.  This book is the result of Fink's research and was chosen in 1913 as one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.

For 5 days the staff and patients at Memorial Hospital waited for evacuation while the city, state of Louisiana and federal authorities conducted what now looks like an unprepared and incompetent scenario of bickering and poor organized efforts of rescuing the oppressed population of New Orleans.  Memorial, meanwhile operating with a skeleton crew and without electricity, was left to fend for itself, as its parent company, Tenet, was dithering without a plan or a helicopter contract.  As the hurricane raged and then departed, the temperature in the hospital rose to an unbearable level coupled with heavy moisture which intensified as the days went on and worked on the emotional level of patients, staff and the families and in some cases pets who were sheltering at the hospital.  Along with the rising contaminated water, the staff had to contend with roving bands of looters and addicts looking for drugs and food.

Doctors and especially nurses acted with heroism under the stress of sleep deprivation and the deteriorating condition of their patients.  This is their story and Fink tells it in admirable detail.  The central issue in the wake of the disaster is one of ethics and religious conviction.  Overworked doctors and nurses under the direction of Dr. Pou were put in a position to make life and death decisions for a group of patients in palliative care with Do Not Resuscitate orders on their charts.  When Dr. Pou made the decision to inject a number of these patients with morphine and a sedative, was she acting with mercy and euthanizing the dying or was it a question of murder?  This is what the DA's office in New Orleans investigated.  Forty-five corpses were found in the chapel of the hospital and many of these were not given the choice as they faced death.

Fink does a thorough examination of all sides of the moral issues involved as the city began to build its case again Dr. Pou.  She writes plainly and without exaggeration as she wades through the conflicting stories and evidence in the case.  Who can judge what choices people make under duress in a dreadful natural disaster such as Katrina.  As Fink states toward the end of the book:

"Sometimes individual medical choices are less a question of science than they are of values.  In a disaster, triage is about deciding what the goals of dividing resources should be for the larger population.......The larger community may emerge with ideas different from those held by small groups of medical professionals."

As a result of Katrina, hospitals all over the country have had to reexamine their response to catastrophic disasters.  Five Days at Memorial has played its part in this reexamination.  I highly recommend Sheri Fink's book to all readers.  It will provoke thoughtful discussion and moral examination of our values.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

LAST FRIENDS by Jane Gardam (fic)

This book is the third of a trilogy of superbly written books by Jane Gardam.  I recommend that you begin by reading "Old Filth" followed by "The Man in the Wooden Hat" and finally the above book, which would lose its relevance if read before the previous two.

All three books are tales told from the viewpoint of older characters looking back on their lives and how they mesh with each other's stories.  The stories range from the twenties through modern time and mainly involve three people, Edward Feathers Q.C. and his wife Betty and Terry Veneering, a handsome womanizer.  The first volume is about Edward Feathers, Old Filth of the title, which is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."  The second book is about Betty who has a fling with Veneering, and finally the current book tells the story of Terry Veneering. The setting of the first two books is Hong Kong and through coincidence, or not, the principals all end up living in the same small village in the west of England.

"Last Friends" opens in Dorset in a village filled with the dotty type of characters that can only be  British.  One of my favorites is a somewhat confused old dear named Dulcie who rattles around in a large cold house.  She along with another eccentric elder called Fiscal-Smith are the last friends of the title.

As the book goes on, the reader discovers the real story of Terry Veneering who up to this point has presented as a sophisticated upper class Oxford graduate.  Contrary to his public persona, Veneering comes from a very poor Teeside mining town where his mother, Floorie supports the family by delivering coal and his father turns out to be a damaged Russian acrobat and even perhaps a spy.  Veneering is of course, not Terry's real name.  His mother is one of the more interesting characters in the novel.

Jane Gardam is an exceptional writer and these novels are funny and satirical, yet she gets to the real crux of her characters' beings.  I might have giggled my way through these novels, but I also realized that there were some real truths about people and relationships to be found in these pages.  I enjoyed all three books very much, perhaps the first two more than the third.

Monday, December 8, 2014

THE DISAPPEARED by Kim Echlin (fic)

"The Disappeared" is a love story filled with yearning and sadness.  It is a beautifully written book, and  Echlin writes with a unique and individual style and an economy of words.  Her sentences are brief yet filled with description and mood, very much like poetry.  This novel was a best seller in Canada.

Anne Greves, a young Canadian girl loves with an obsessiveness that is reminiscent of the narrator in Pamuk's book, "The Museum of Innocence." She meets a Cambodian young man named Serey who has been sent to Canada to further his education in Montreal.  Serey is an accomplished jazz musician who pours his longing for his country and family into his music. Anne herself lost her mother when she was a baby, and her father while kind is distant and wrapped up in his work; so there is a hole in both their lives that needs filling which speeds the comfort they find in each other.

The novel is set in the mid 1970s, and as the situation in Cambodia worsens, Serey feels the need to return to his home country to search for his parents who were most likely victims of the Cambodian genocide.  Between the years of 1975 and 79, 1.7 million lives were lost in the killing frenzy of Pol Pot.  Serey leaves Anne behind and becomes one of the disappeared.

Eleven years go by, Anne goes to University, enters into other relationships and tries unsuccessfully to forget Serey.  One day watching a news story about Cambodia, she is convinced she spots him in a crowd.  Impulsively, she leaves behind her life in Montreal, flies to Phnom Penh, and makes it her mission to find Serey.

Echlin writes of Cambodia so realistically and sensually that the reader feels she/he has entered another world, a beautiful and exotic one that is filled with the suffering and depravity fashioned by the Khmer Rouge.  It is country trying to regain meaning and its footing in the world.

Anne finds and loses Serey three times, refusing to give up the life they have fashioned for themselves.  She is helped by some lovely gentle Cambodians and an ex-pat Canadian doing charity work among the wounded.  Anne writes this story as a memorial to Serey, just as Echlin has dedicated the book to Vann Nath who entreats her to "Tell Others."

I highly recommend this book for its superior writing, though the story is a painful one of a young woman's determination to find the man she loves and a story which depicts the cruelty and madness of the killing fields.