Sunday, January 27, 2008

My Read of An Uncertain Inheritance - Part 1

An Uncertain Inheritance: Writer’s on Caring for Family edited by Nell Casey

Joanne D. Kiggins in her blog, WritingAfterDark, gave a real review.

I wouldn't have purchased this book except for the fact that Joanne reviewed it. And when I looked on Amazon it was available in a Kindle edition and I'm really into my Kindle right now. But I am not a good book reviewer and really don't enjoy doing such things. I don't particularly want to be objective about it and I think objectivity is required for a good review. So I'll leave the real reviewing to Joanne.

But I thought it might be an interesting topic for my blog and kind of keep me posting for a while. I decided I would read the book chapter by chapter and then write about my own deeply subjective feelings about the material and about the subject of caregiving from my own perspective. So this isn't really a review but more of a written account of my experience of reading this book.It's going to take more than one post, too, so that's why I'm doing parts. Still there are 21 chapters including the foreword and the introduction so I'm going to try to cover at least 5 in each of my reviews.

You may think I am harsh and critical about some of these. I do not mean it to be so. I am not saying that the work is unimportant or insignificant or even that I did not benefit in some way. Rather it is about my feeling from the reading.

foreword by Frank McCourt (read January 24, 2008)

I didn't know who Frank McCourt was so I had to look him up and that's why I linked his name to the Wiki article. I remembered him when I read the article. I didn't like Angela's Ashes very much when I read it. My daughter did though and she gave a copy to me not long after I came to live with Mom and Dad and begin my caregiving. So maybe it was the time I tried to read it as much as it was the book itself.

He begins by recounting a story of his youth, or childhood more properly, when he delivered telegrams to a hospice and how curious he was about death and dying. Try as I might I could not really appreciate this story. I suppose I was the odd child out because I never had the curiosity about death and dying that McCourt recounts. I say "odd child out" though because I recognize that a lot of kids did then and now do.

He continues that this book made him continuously recall memories like that from his past. "There are, I think, two great themes in this book: suffering and heroism" he writes. He concludes that there is heartbreak, humor, dignity, and grace to be found in this book and at the end "you'll want to stand and cheer."

At the time I'm writing this I've only managed the first essay and I'm hoping further reading will make me feel that way because I certainly don't now, that is stand and cheer.

I did notice that Mr. McCourt's foreword is dated January 17, 2007. So I began reading this book 1 year and 1 week to the day afterward. That's 3 days after the 5th month anniversary of my Dad's death, too.

introduction by Nell Casey (read January 24, 2008)

Just in case you're wondering I am using the lower case on tine "foreword" and "introduction" because that's the way it is printed in the book.

And, yes, I searched for Nell Casey. I probably will search or have already every name I find. I seem to do that a lot now I notice. I figure if I do it then others do it as well.

This introduction could very well be a review of the entire book. There are several paragraphs that are just beautifully written and worth reading just for the sake of reading the words if not the material itself. I especially like the first paragraph and the last. In between is mixed with things about each of the succeeding chapters or essays and data about numbers of caregivers and things like that.

The introduction concludes with "We endure." I intend to but I hope the process of reading becomes less about endurance and more about enjoyment or at least inspiration. But maybe that's too much to ask for such material.

My Father the Garbage Head by Helen Schulman (read January 24, 2008)

In the actual book - well I don't have the actual book but I have the Kindle version of the actual book - this title is also in lower case. But it seems unnatural for me to continue that so I'm back to my own scheme which is capitalizing the titles. This way I don't have to try to remember what I'm doing. And so now you know something not necessarily flattering about me.

This essay is emotional and comes across as brutally honest and straight forward. That said though I didn't like this essay very much. It is not a tribute either to Ms. Schulman's father or herself for that matter. Nell Casey says that this essay is a "... criticism of the tendency to idealize the caregiver." With all due respect I don't see it that way although I do agree that there is a tendency to idealize the caregiver and I also agree that this essay in no way does that.

I've read this one now three times. I've tried to like it. I like Ms. Schulman's writing but I don't much like this material.

I never really felt connected to Ms. Schulman or her father or the family. There were things I connected with to be sure. I guess I'm trying to say that I could never quite relate my own caregiving experience with hers or her father's death with my father's death or my mother's death or the death of anyone in my family really.

I was trying to understand why I feel this way and that caused the multiple reads. Usually I would not subject myself to more displeasure with reading.

I have a few answers I think. At first I wondered if it was entirely the early revelation that her father was an atheist and terrified of death. This didn't really startle me exactly but I think it did flavor the rest of the material on the first read. Atheism is not terribly comforting about death and I know that first hand because I was one for a good many years. It isn't as discomforting as one might think however. In fact I could argue and did that the great nothingness after death was better than any potential eternal torment. And there's even something rather admirable about someone clinging to a deeply held belief even in the face of death. But there's something peculiarly selfish and unsympathetic and unheroic about it, too. I think it is the selfishness that bothered me most.

Then there was the part about love. She writes about telling her father that she would love him and be there for him. And he tells her that her love really will not help him. Here again I understood what she believed he meant and I even appreciated it. Also again the selfishness bothered me.

Then there is the entire thing about killing him. That bothered me. And there is more about the mother. And that bothered me. And I understood both things.

But I think none of these things were the most important factor.

I think it was the blogs I read and have been reading a while now, that is, the blogs of my fellow caregiver friends. Some of us have experienced one or more deaths of our loved ones. Some of us are still caregiving. I think I connect more with them though because of the regular posts we all make and read. I think that is too hard to do in a single, brief essay. Maybe if I had been reading Ms. Schulman's blog for a while and had gone through the thing with her I would have more connection. Maybe blogging has just changed forever my expectation of books.

Now let me say that this essay is worth reading for a number of reasons. But if I had to choose only one it would be the incredibly vivid description of her father's death. This is one powerful account. I would read the essay again just for this account.

I did not enjoy this essay but I am glad I read it. I am slogging onward. I can't spend this much time writing about these chapters or I'm never going to get done.

The Gift by Sam Lipsyte (read January 27, 2008)

Lipsyte's title comes from a statement that someone made to him about his caregiving for his mother. He writes that his first impulse was to strike the person. He admits that he thought there might be a tiny bit of hidden truth in the assertion. The end of the essay comes full circle actually (as any good essay should - we still use chiasmus I guess). He still doesn't think it was much of a gift and says so.

Just like the first essay there were several things to which I could easily relate. Lipsyte was living with his mother because his own life was in shambles and she was giving him a chance to start over. I relate to that except that my own shambles was already in the process of being reclaimed and I felt caregiving was a huge interruption. At least I felt that way at first. And I understand the resentment about the gift talk. Except that I did come to understand the enormity of the gift I had been blessed to receive.

I wonder if one of the requirements for writing an essay for this book is to be a person without faith. And maybe to write exclusively from a selfish perspective. Except for a few paragraphs that the writer himself characterizes as being "implausible and sentimental" and "sounding like one of those nurses spouting crap about angels" there is nothing remotely spiritual here except that it is judgmental and derisive to those who do espouse faith.

I did like this essay better than the first one but only marginally.

My Other Husband by Ann Harleman (read January 27, 2008)

This is a sweet and strangely sensual essay and there is love, both physically and emotionally. And there is even a spiritual element albeit subtle.

I related more personally to this story than the previous. Not entirely of course but I was more able to empathize and sympathize with Ms. Harleman. My cousin's husband had MS. And my cousin already had suffered Guillain-Barre for years when they married. About 25 years ago I had a friend who had MS, too. So I knew something about MS and I knew something about spouses who care for each other.

This essay like the others is brutally honest and no holds barred.

Here it is the husband who has MS. I recognize much of what Ms. Harleman writes about his moods and trips to the ER and of their everyday life together. This lady holds my attention. While she makes no effort to paint herself in a positive light, by the end of the essay I hold her with esteem and gratitude.

Unlike the preceding articles I found beauty, love, and inspiration here. I shall read it again.

Elliott by Jerome Groopman (read January 27, 2008)

WOW! What a surprise is this little story. For me it was riveting and suspenseful. For one thing it was such a different perspective than one I could myself imagine. And I mean that both from the point of view of the friend and the loved one.

I loved the ending which is a wonderful Psalm. I shall write no more about it but I loved this essay.


Lori1955 said...

Well I don't know if I would like this book now but I sure enjoy you writing about it. I found it interesting about the lack of spirituality that you have found in this book so far. I can't imagine being a caregiver without some kind of belief to hold on to.

~Betsy said...

It looks as if I will have to order this book, Terry. Your account of it has my interest.

I agree with Lori - care giving without some sort of faith would be a heck of a challenge.

When Calls for Submissions are put out for essays to be included in an anthology, the editors will normally give the writers guidelines to follow. They are usually something about total word count, first or third person, truth or fiction, etc. I don't know, but maybe the editor requested no religious accounts? Don't quote me on that because I never read the guidelines, but it could be an explanation.

I'll let you know when I get my copy!

nancy said...

you have piqued my interest as well. i think i will have to look for it.

i look forward to hearing your impressions on the rest of the chapters.

Joanne D. Kiggins said...

Terry, So far many of the feelings you've had while reading this book are the same one's I had while reviewing it. I think it's wonderful that you're writing your impressions of each essay. You're doing a great job. Maybe you should consider doing reviews. ;) When I write book reviews, I'm normally held within a wordcount for publications, though I could have expounded in my personal blog. I just felt since it was published in four different outlets, I should keep it the same in my blog. I'm really glad you're taking the time to give your impressions, though. There are a lot of emotions that run through these essay. Thanks for the mention of my blog, too.