Saturday, June 30, 2012

THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon

I read Mark Haddon's first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, while flying somewhere. Usually plane trips make me sleepy. That time I was transfixed, improbably gripped by his first-person account of an autistic boy's attempt to learn who killed the neighbor's poodle.

A couple of years later, I eagerly took Haddon's second novel, A Spot of Bother, off the library's new-books shelf. Meh. Maybe my expectations were  too high. It's not bad, for a dysfunctional-family novel, but I didn't breathlessly tell my friends about it.

A few weeks ago I read a review of his third novel, The Red House, and put it on hold. It was published June 12, I got it June 15 (I adore the Wheaton Public Library), it was due yesterday, and I finished it last night. It wouldn't have kept me awake on a long flight, but it's oddly brilliant.

I once read a definition of a literary novel as one where the characters, after thinking a great deal, are just as miserable at the end as they were at the beginning. The Red House is definitely a literary novel. The situation: a brother and a sister in their late 40s, having ignored each other for years, meet for a two-family vacation near Hay-on-Wye not long after their mother's funeral. Here is the cast of characters, with their problems:

Richard, the brother. A physician who is facing a lawsuit. Shocked by revelations about his second wife. Doesn't much like her daughter.

Louisa, his wife. Unhappy first marriage. A past she'd rather forget. A daughter she doesn't know what to do with.

Melissa, their daughter, age 16. The meanest of mean girls, facing serious trouble back home for something she shouldn't have done. Realizes she has no real friends.

Angela, the sister. Not fond of either her brother or her husband. Resentful about being left to care for her aging mother. Afraid she will turn out just like her. Grieving the loss of an infant 18 years ago.

Dominic, her husband. Loser who, unbeknownst to Angela, is cheating on her with a woman he isn't sure he likes.

Alex, their son, age 17. Who knows what his problems will be after he relaxes his grip on his, um, total obsession with sex?

Daisy, their daughter, age 16. In-your-face religious, which annoys her family. I won't tell you about her other problem, one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Benjy, their son, age 8. Lives mostly in his imagination. Biggest problem: he has to hang out with the rest of this crew.

Put these eight in one vacation home in a remote part of Herefordshire and see what happens. Adopt the stance of omniscient narrator and tell their stories through stream-of-consciousness narration with lots of sentence fragments. Make it a big tricky, sometimes, for the reader to know who's talking, and see if we care what happens.

Well, eventually I did care, even though my usual lazy taste runs toward more straightforward novels. Haddon is a good writer. He may be a genius. But so far his legacy still depends on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

PS - For a thorough, knowledgeable, funny, and curmudgeonly review of this novel, read Tom Shone, "Under One Roof," in the July 8 New York Times.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How to get good health care without the individual mandate

In the wake of today's Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, one of my conservative friends pointed out that 68% of Americans oppose the individual mandate to buy health insurance. That's accurate, or possibly low. The Kaiser Family Foundation found in April that only 30% supported the mandate.

Oddly enough, however, most respondents supported other features of the Affordable Care Act: 60% supported guaranteed insurability, 66% supported Medicaid expansion (which the Supreme Court limited), 71% supported extended dependent coverage, and 78% supported closing the Medicare "doughnut hole," which makes prescription drugs more expensive for seniors.

Hey, there are ways to get those features without an individual mandate:
  • We could switch to a single-payer system
  • We could pay twice or three times as much for health insurance
  • We could move to Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom--or France or Belgium or Switzerland or Italy or any other developed nation. Oh, wait, that might not work. Those countries have all the features we like, and their costs are significantly lower than ours, and their outcomes tend to be better than ours--but they all fund health care through taxes, an individual mandate, or a combination of the two.
Or we can just go on electing people who tell us we can have everything we want without paying for it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

DRIFT by Rachel Maddow

This is not a book review. It is a plug. If you are an American, you should read Drift.

At first glance, Drift did not call my name. Its subtitle, The Unmooring of American Military Power, sounded wonky (by the U.S. definition): more than I wanted to know about a topic that didn't grab me. I picked up the book anyway, and by page 2, I was hooked. Maddow leaped nimbly over my highest bar for a nonfiction writer: she got me to care about a topic that previously left me indifferent.

That's fine for a left-coast liberal like LaVonne, some of my friends may be thinking, but I don't read people who have an eponymous show on MSNBC. Hey, we all have the right to our own prejudices, but consider these perhaps surprising facts:
  • Maddow begins by deploring government spending gone awry
  • She frequently appeals to the framers of the Constitution
  • She believes the executive branch has entirely too much power
  • She finds fault with decisions made by Johnson, Clinton, and Obama as well as by Reagan, Bush, and Bush (and plenty of other people of both parties)
Maddow's point? That our founding fathers intended to make waging war difficult.

That is why they authorized Congress, not the President, to declare war: warmongering is just too attractive to Presidents Who Would Be Kings. And that is why, when our American forbears did go to war, they used (mostly) citizen soldiers, not a professional standing military force--men who had to leave their fields, factories, and offices when they put on their uniforms, and who were more than happy to return to them just as soon as the fighting was finished. But since the 1960s, the power to declare war has shifted - unconstitutionally - from the legislative to the executive branch, and waging war has shifted from citizen soldiers to private corporations, and war has gone from being rare to being the dull background of everyday life--a thriving industry, in fact.

Drift answered a question that's been troubling me for years. In books or films set during World War II, the whole nation seems to be involved. Sons, husbands, and lovers leave for the front. Women take over factory jobs and grow victory gardens. Everybody drives less, makes do without coffee and butter, and buys war bonds. Families gather around huge radios to listen to news about the war. Victories inspire ticker-tape parades and dancing in the streets. Born three years after that war ended, I've lived through lots of wars, and they didn't feel a bit like those tales of sacrifice and heroism, loss and jubilation. Have I been seeing World War II through a haze of nostalgia? Or has something fundamentally changed?

Something has definitely changed, says Maddow, who is not only a TV presenter but also a Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford DPhil in political science. There has been no conspiracy, but there has been a lot of secrecy. With good or at least pragmatic intentions, our leaders have put us in a situation that could have unimaginably tragic consequences--and one of these days probably will, unless we inform ourselves and act to restore our founding fathers' vision.

Drift has been heavily discussed elsewhere: Google it and enjoy the reviews. Or just get yourself a copy. Still want to know more? Here, let Maddow explain it:

Monday, June 18, 2012


Dorothy keeps popping up unexpectedly. Aaron, her husband, first sees her at the house the oak tree fell on. She then starts joining him at random times and places: in the grocery store check-out line, in the street near his office, in Belvedere Square. One day she appears just outside his office window, by the trash cans.

The odd thing is, Dorothy has been dead for nearly a year.

Aaron is neither romantic nor religious. He's the dutiful, unimaginative editor at the family-owned vanity press, publishers of a Beginner's series--"something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice," thin books to get you started:
Anything is manageable if it's divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life's most complicated lessons. Not The Beginner's Cookbook but The Beginner's Soups.... Not The Beginner's Child Care but The Beginner's Colicky Baby.
But how can Aaron apply this wisdom to grieving? How can he begin to say goodbye to Dorothy, his wife of ten years?

The Beginner's Goodbye includes everything you'd expect in an Anne Tyler novel (it's her 19th): Lovable, socially awkward characters. Family ties that sometimes bind. Writing that is at once accessible and literary, comic and profound. Baltimore.

It's not as rich as Tyler's magnificent Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, but then a Beginner's guide is just meant to get you started. This one could start a lot of conversations, not only about grief but also about communication in marriage, and how we sabotage our own happiness, and whether marriage partners can ever really know one another.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


My 9-month-old grandson is indubitably the cutest, sweetest, smartest, most amazing baby in the whole world. These traits must run in our family: the same adjectives could be (and often are) applied to my three other grandchildren, now extraordinary teenagers. Here, let me show you pictures ...

Well, at least Anne Lamott didn't include photos in this sequel to her 1993 best-seller, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. Apart from that unaccountable omission, Some Assembly Required is a pure outpouring of grandmotherly fervor, adoration, obsession, and--in Lamott's inimitable (but often parroted) style--neurosis. I first learned of this book in an airport bookstore, en route to see my most recent prodigious grandbaby. How could I resist?

Lamott, who became a single parent in 1989, was startled to learn that her son, Sam, was going to become a parent in 2009, shortly before his 20th birthday. Sam's partner, Amy, was a year older. They were not sure if they were going to stay together.

If you are an Anne Lamott fan, you are no doubt eager to know what happens to this precarious young family. If you have yet to get acquainted with Ms. Lamott's simultaneously self-absorbed and self-deprecating nonfiction, however, don't start here. Opt rather for Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, fine essay-memoirs that lay the necessary groundwork for appreciating Lamott's singular foibles and quirks.

I especially liked two things about Some Assembly Required. First, in an extended aside (pages 126 to 160), Lamott describes her trip to India. It has little to do with baby Jax, but I love the way she depicts how it feels for a relatively privileged introverted Californian (I identify) to plunge into the very different world of Delhi:
People were going about their day: Brahmans, vendors, beggars, rickshaw drivers, schoolchildren in eentsy-beentsy buses. Some people were waking up under blankets: families who lived on the streets in this soft fever dream, with temporary homes built against low walls and fences. A kitchen materializes when the mother produces two bricks and some dung and someone has found pieces of coal or wood from packing crates; they have a rice pot and a minimal amount of grains to cook. In the market stalls were great vats of milk boiling, and clay pots in which yogurt would be made, from warm milk and yesterday's curds. Everywhere, people were doing their daily puja, their offering of flowers, fruit, devotions: in their stalls, on their blankets, in their rickshaws, in their fleeting homes on the street.
The second thing I really liked about the book struck me at first as annoying. Throughout the entire year, Lamott is on a constant cycle of trying to control the lives of Sam, Amy, and Jax; complaining to her friends when things don't go her way; getting told that this isn't about her; and eventually feeling all contrite and wise. But then I realized that she is describing the fundamental task of grandparents and, indeed, of all of us of grandparent age. Unless we're the Queen of England, the time comes when we have to let go and turn the running of the world over to the next generation.

It isn't easy. It takes a lot of practice and plenty of forgiveness on both sides. And even if we think we've left the stage and are now in the audience wildly applauding the current crop of actors, our kids may not see it that way. Here's some of Lamott's wisdom, in a chastened moment:
It is the most difficult Zen practice to leave people to their destiny, even though it's painful--just loving them, and breathing with them, and distracting them in a sweet way, and laughing with them.
    Whose life was I living? I was living Annie's life (and maybe a bit of the dogs'). And it was complex enough. I had enough to wrestle, wrangle, and settle back into, with this one life of mine. Besides, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that if something was not my problem, I probably did not have the solution.
     There are no words for how much I hate, resent, and resist this.
The fact that Anne's son Sam contributed a great deal to this book tells me she must be doing a  good-enough job of letting go. And anyway, Jax is about to turn three. I suspect he has been asserting his own generational rights for at least a year now.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why old dogs NEED new tricks

"Retirement should involve re-tiring, or putting on new tires and doing even more than before."
--Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who gives credit for this thought to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson
A friend posted this on Facebook recently. He, like my husband and me, is rushing headlong toward what Social Security calls  "full (normal) retirement age." No doubt his mailbox, like ours, is regularly replenished with offers for hearing aids, Medigap insurance, and free lunches sponsored by financial planners. No doubt he too has seen those chirpy birthday cards asking "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" or assuring us that "Age is just a number" or, heaven help us, promising us that "The best is yet to be."

I suppose that depends on how you define "best."

Muffin and Tiggy contemplate retirement
In any case, let me tell you about my two little dogs, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Muffin. They do not know how old they are. For that matter, I don't know how old they are: both were young adults when they came to live with us 9 or 10 years ago. Both dogs need new tires, but since they don't know where to find them, the best is probably not yet to be.

Yesterday the three of us took a two-mile walk down the Prairie Path to Lincoln Marsh and back. We've been taking this walk for years, and we all love it. Sometimes we turn it into a three-mile walk by continuing to Jewell Road before turning around. Once this spring we turned right when we reached Jewell and walked four miles.

Except that yesterday afternoon, which was cool and pleasant, Muffin couldn't keep up. She didn't complain, but she started dragging behind Tiggy and me. She looked like she was working hard. Eventually I picked her up and carried her. Her heart was beating very fast.

Muffin looks great. Her health is good. She still enjoys a game of tug-a-toy with Tiggy, and she still wants to take walks. She's not an ancient dog, but she's nearing full retirement age. According to this chart that correlates a dog's age in human years with her size, she's probably between 60 and 68. In other words, she's my age.

I would like to point out that Rabbi Boteach, who believes in "doing more than before" in retirement, is 45 years old. When Robert Browning wrote "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be," he was, at most, 52. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of youngsters - or even rare oldsters, like my 91-year-old friend who cross-country skis around her 15-acre farm - setting the bar for the rest of us.

Fact: Muffin can't do today what she could do last year, and this is not because she's depressed or lazy or conforming to society's low expectations for aging dogs. It's because most dogs, like most people, quite naturally slow down as the years go by, and no matter how strenuous our denial, we will not be puppies again.

A lot of us silly boomers think we're going to reinvent old age (and why not? didn't we invent sex back in the 1960s?), when all we're really doing is lapsing into nostalgia. Afraid to enter a new phase of life, we double down on what we already know: overwork, multitasking, constant activity. Those were the days, my friend, / We thought they'd never end.

But maybe we should be thinking forward, not backward. Maybe we should be looking at new ways of living, ways we haven't yet had time to try, ways uniquely suited to people with more life experience than health and vigor.

For Muffin, whose life purpose is to sit on laps and hang around her peeps, the future looks bright. Especially if she can persuade me to buy her a doggy jogger...