The Empathy Exams

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world – anywhere, anytime, ever.”    Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

 

At work when I need a break, I go for coffee in the atrium of the medical school. On the way, I pass by the learning labs, where occasionally I see people–young, middle-aged, and older, male and female–sitting in the hallway, waiting for their turn to go in.

They have a twinkle in their eye as though they know something you don’t. They’re psyched, as if prepared to give a performance. That’s because they’re medical actors, hired so medical students can practice their empathic patient interviewing and diagnostic skills.

The Empathy Exams book coverIn The Empathy Exams, author Leslie Jamison explains what a medical actor does. She knows because she’s been one herself:

“My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies….

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us–not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms…

My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn’t know you could convulse from sadness. She’s not supposed to know either. She’s not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she’s lost.”

These are the first paragraphs of the first essay in The Empathy Exams, and they intrigued me for a number of reasons: Leslie’s compelling voice; her take on the ironies and subtleties of medical acting; and because I, too, had been nonplussed when, as a medical librarian, I learned about conversion disorder.

A couple of years ago an “outbreak” of conversion disorder (known as mass psychogenic illness) among a dozen or more high school girls in a nearby upstate New York town captured the attention of media around the world.  One after another, the girls succumbed to uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts. They were besieged with requests for interviews. Their physicians advised them to avoid social media so the frenzy wouldn’t cause their symptoms to get worse. Some people thought the girls were faking their illness. Erin Brockovich (with lawsuits in mind) suspected environmental poisoning. At the medical center where I work, I was asked to track the news coverage. Neurologists wanted to see if there was a correlation between spikes in media attention and exacerbation of the girls’ symptoms.

No environmental cause was ever found. Eventually, most of the girls recovered. One journalist wrote a well researched investigative piece that pointed out the girls came from troubled families in a town devastated by unemployment. Many of the girls had recently experienced significant domestic trauma. Perhaps this trauma triggered their conversion disorder.

In her essays, Leslie is concerned about physical and emotional pain, what it means to empathize with those who suffer, how difficult this can be, and why it is important to have our pain acknowledged by others, given the fact that we’re so often quick to accuse people of succumbing to victimhood. I often think about this when I read reviews dismissive of memoirs as self-indulgent. I wonder if I’m playing the victim when I write about some of my own experiences. Ours is not an empathic culture.

Leslie writes about her own pain and that of others in various walks of life: those suffering from “phantom” illnesses; a man in federal prison for a minor crime; ultra-marathoners who push their bodies beyond reason; three teen-age boys accused of murder on the thinnest of evidence.

As I read, I began to think of the girls with conversion disorder in a more nuanced way and, yes, with greater emapthy. The media stories had reduced the girls to caricatures. Leslie’s essays got me thinking the girls hadn’t had their fair share of empathy (or good fortune) in their personal lives and certainly not during the sensationalistic coverage of their illness.

I’d just about finished reading The Empathy Exams when I read a New York Times article about the alleged rape of a college freshman, Anna, by two football players. After what seems to have been a staggeringly incompetent college “investigation,” the football players were cleared. Anna left school after she was harassed for making accusations against members of the football team, but she plans to return this fall. She doesn’t want to be defeated, and she wants to help other women on campus.

I couldn’t get this story out of my mind.  I mulled it over when I went to work out at our community center. The story has unleashed a firestorm, with accusations back and forth: between Anna and the football players, as well as among college officials, the district attorney’s office, and Anna’s legal counsel. Many of the kids–the football players, the fraternity members, the girls who went to the party – were drunk to the point of oblivion. (Anna, herself, was so drunk she doesn’t remember being raped – hence, some of the controversy – though others witnessed it and did nothing. One of Anna’s friends did help her, and other friends decided to call the police.) How can this self-destructive partying be fun for anyone, and why are students driven to do it?

If you believe the unbelievable numbers cited in this story–that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted–it does seem as though we are not paying attention to something important. That perhaps we need to start listening to a certain segment of the population, and listening with empathy.

After I finished exercising, I sat in the lounge overlooking the pool, watching moms and dads swimming with their children. I pulled out Leslie’s essays and read the final one, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Leslie seemed to be speaking about Anna.

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world–anywhere, anytime, ever….

Sure, some news is bigger news than other news….But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.

I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out of date…masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore.”

Leslie has much more to say, and her essays are far richer than I’ve captured here. I won’t share her most important insights, as much would be lost in the translation.

She’s a remarkable new writer.

Books at my door

Books at my doorDelancey book cover

 

If you like food writing combined with memoir, you will like Molly Wizenberg and her latest, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage. The restaurant is in Seattle. Her first book, A Homemade Life, is a bestseller.

Sicily book coverI bought Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards for an upcoming trip – haven’t been there in seven years. Many of the greatest writers were drawn to this island.

Groundbreaking Food Gardens by Nikki Jabbour promises 73 plans that will change the way you grow your garden, such as: Slow Food Garden; Vintage Victory Garden; Edibles on a Patio; Heirloom Sampler; Formal Herb Garden; Eggs & Everything; and Living Walls.

Piazza, Carini

The piazza in Carini, Sicily, where my father was born

Cleveland was my home but I lost it

Go down and tell them what you’ve seen:

that the river burned and was not consumed.

“River on Fire” by David Lucas in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology

Rust Belt Chic cover photoI’ve been writing about the town where I grew up, how you can’t go home again and all that, and about my fraught relationship with Cleveland. This kind of ambivalence permeates Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, (published by the editors of the online magazine Belt) which I’ve been reading in between novels and book-length nonfiction. But all is not bleak – the collection includes a good share of essays by writers who unabashedly love Cleveland. The writing is excellent, the social commentary and history fascinating.

My childhood home just outside of Cleveland shared a driveway with our floral shop, where the locals bought their wedding and funeral flowers, Easter corsages and prom nosegays. We earned a good living in that small shop.

Those were prosperous times. I remember boarding a passenger ship docked on the dowtown shores of Lake Erie with my mother, some time in the late 1950s. We were going to visit my aunt, who lived in Michigan on the Detroit River, across from a mighty steel mill. This was no mere ferry we travelled on, but a big old steel ship; my memory of this seems outlandish to me now but, based on my cursory research, I presume we travelled on the SS Aquarama, a World War II troop carrier that was converted to a passenger ship after the war.

I loved going to my aunt’s house, where barges as big as factories floated past the backyard every day. Back then, Detroit and Cleveland were first-tier cities.

Today, Detroit is ranked first in the United States for poverty, and Cleveland is second.

As an adult, I moved to New York City, but eventually I settled and raised a family in another Rust Belt city on a lake (probably no coincidence). In Rochester, New York I worked for Kodak, for a time, but now the company is a shell of its former self. Rochester is ranked third in the US for poverty.

In 2008, my Ohio hometown was the epicenter of the mortgage crisis and still has not recovered. It has essentially become an extension of the blight that is East Cleveland. Homes have sold for as little as $1000 there. Other houses have been abandoned and stripped of their copper plumbing and aluminum siding. Many have been demolished.

Sometimes, I think about what it would be like to move back to Cleveland. I could host a book club for schoolchildren in the old flower shop. It would be a safe haven from the drugs in the vacant lot next door, the guns, the crime. We’d read poetry by Mary Oliver, who is from my hometown, and the novels of Toni Morrison, who is from Lorain. I’d give each child a book to take home.

But, of course, my life has long been elsewhere and I won’t move back. You can’t go home again and, besides, our house and the shop are (finally) about to be sold (fingers crossed).

Both optimists and pessimists write about Cleveland in this Rust Belt Chic anthology. (Rust Belt Chic anthologies of Detroit and Cincinnati have been published as well. Additional volumes are in the planning stages.) When it comes down to it, I’m essentially an optimist, because I don’t think things can get much worse, and I see a commitment to community and volunteerism among young people who choose to stay or settle in Rust Belt cities.

But I’m sad and bitter, too, when I think about what my childhood home has become. I feel shame, too, but I don’t mean I’m ashamed of where I’m from. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. Rather, I feel shame in the sense that we could have and should have done better in terms of taking care of our communities and each other.

What is the Rust Belt, and Rust Belt Chic? From the Cleveland Anthology

“What I’ve figured out, though, is that maybe I didn’t want baseball – I wanted Cleveland. I wanted to walk from the stadium past Tower City to my dad’s office parking lot at 11:34 pm after a Tribe game on a hot August night….ecstatic crowd walking outside the Gund, of guys in black sneakers and ladies with bra straps exposed and tans darker than the Cuyahoga in December….” Norene Malone

“I want to laugh when I hear that people are moving to Cleveland to practice their art. Then I want to spit in their faces….The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification. Developers show up, displaying all the sensitive charm of a multinational corporation….

All that beautiful decay, they seemed to say. Look at how wonderful this place used to be. Look how terrible it all was.”   Eric Anderson

“I was in love with Little Italy the moment I laid eyes on it, and still am, though it’s a long-distance thing now, with me pining away from the East Coast.”   Clare Malone

“But as Iraq fell apart on sectarian lines, Cleveland’s little Iraq fused closer together. I wasn’t authentic enough to intuit from last names and cities of origin which of our friends were Sunni and which were Shia, and for our purposes, the distinction was irrelevant.”   Huda Al-Marashi

“I have never, ever, met any single person of color with any great passion for this city.”   Jimi Izrael

“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James.”     Jim Russell

“The lips are gone. For years, they floated on an abutment at the base of the Detroit-Superior bridge in the Flats: a big pair of shiny red-enamel lips framing a mouthful of teeth….The lips first appeared sometime in the late 1970s, covering up an obscene tag someone had scrawled on the wall with an aerosol paint can. Below the lips was an equally mysterious signature announcing that this graffiti was the work of some so-called “Regional Art Terrorists.”    David C. Barnett

“Decades ago, Pekar’s work was already refuting the idea of the Rust Belt as a non-culture. Like today’s Rust Belt artists, he was fascinated by the city’s ethnic heritage, fluent in the history recorded in their grand architecture, obsessed with a sense of loss and ruin. But there’s one very important difference between him and his enthusiastic Rust Belt chic successors: Pekar’s view of Cleveland and the Rust Belt was almost entirely devoid of optimism.”  Erick Trickey

Mother and daughter in front of flower shop

Our flower shop, opening day

 

Note: The title for this post was inspired by a photograph on NewGeography.com.

The Goldfinch

“Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.”   The Goldfinch 

The Goldfinch book coverI made it through all 771 pages of The Goldfinch. That may sound as though reading it was a struggle. It was, occasionally, but I couldn’t abandon Theo Decker, even though things get awfully dark, because just about everyone else in Theo’s life lets him down one way or another. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the novel – I do, very much. But Donna Tartt’s fiction is a commitment, in the way I remember David Copperfield being a commitment when I read it in high school.

(After I wrote this, I found out Stephen King has compared Donna Tartt to Charles Dickens.)

You have to be a reader to take this one on, and a devotee of fiction, and willing to grapple with life’s big questions.

Thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother, a lover of art, are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes. Unbeknownst to Theo, his mother is killed instantly, while Theo finds himself comforting a dying man in his last moments. The delirious man urges Theo to take the painting that has landed in the rubble nearby. In shock, Theo obeys, managing to find his way out of the museum clutching The Goldfinch, a priceless 17th century painting by Carel Fabritius.

Theo is left completely alone. His alcoholic, flimflam artist father abandoned Theo and his mother some years before. So Theo goes to live with the wealthy family of one of his friends from school. Theo still has The Goldfinch in his possession, though no one knows. He can’t bear to part with it.

“How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater.”

Eventually, Theo’s father and his father’s new girlfriend whisk him away to a god-forsaken development in the Nevada desert, where most of the houses are in foreclosure or were abandoned, half-built, by the developer.

Donna Tartt’s third novel is a serious, funny, sad, wicked story, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It takes her about ten years to write a novel; she has also published The Secret History and The Little Friend. 

Theo’s life is suffused with, and saved by, the spirit of The Goldfinch. He has this to say, which I think also applies to Tartt’s novel:

“I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.” 

Summer reading

The Goldfinch book coverI am now thoroughly in the grip of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (In book circles, it seems as though half the universe is reading Tartt’s latest novel.)

After surviving a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (a hellishly claustrophobic, terrifying scene masterfully written), a shell-shocked Theo Decker is making his way home amidst dozens of fire engines, blaring sirens, and chaos in the streets, where he is certain he’ll be reunited with his mother, who had been in the museum gift shop during the blast. Knowing Tartt, I believe things will only go further downhill for Theo in a tragic – comic, picaresque way. I’ll keep you posted over the next few weeks, without spoilers, of course. Having read Tartt’s previous books, The Secret History and The Little Friend, her latest book is a must-read for me.

In the Kingdom of Men book coverIn my perpetual online quest for good reads, I happened upon Kim Barnes the other day. I can’t believe I haven’t yet sampled her writing. In my stack of library books, I now have In the Kingdom of Men, the 1960s story of “a barefoot girl from red dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that” who marries a college boy from her hometown. He takes a job with the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. The novel is loosely based on the experiences of Barnes’ aunt and other American women married to oil executives who worked in the Persian Gulf in the “Mad Men” era. I’ve also placed library holds on Barnes’ two memoirs, In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World.

My Struggle book coverAs usual, I’m overly ambitious, but I’ve decided to take on Norwegian Karl Knausgaard’s three-volume My Struggle after reading intriguing reviews. The fact that our local Barnes & Noble did not have Volume 1 only makes me more determined.

I just purchased Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams (someday we’ll get there) and The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose. (She wrote A Year of Reading Proust.) Rose read, straight through, all the 30 or so books from LEQ – LES on a random shelf in the New York Society Library stacks – no matter how obscure the author. The books and authors include The Phantom of the Opera, California detective fiction, a novel by an Afrikaans writer, stories of French Canadian farmers, and one “feminist, humane earth-mother Jewish writer” who raises award-winning Newfoundlands.

Domestic Matters

A Woman's Shed book cover

We’ve been putting in raised beds at our house, and my latest obsession is backyard domesticity. I just bought Gill Heriz’s delightful A Woman’s Shed. From our local library I borrowed three or four how-to titles about building fences (made of wood, stone, metal, and plants) and backyard sheds, gazebos, cabins, and other nature retreats.

 

The Kitchen Garden Cookbook coverI’ve also been browsing through Sylvia Thompson’s The Kitchen Garden Cookbook (1995). Thompson has also written The Kitchen Garden, which I’ll have to track down. Both are semi-classics endorsed by Alice Waters and other culinary experts. The cookbook is good reading, and if you’re growing your own vegetables you’ll like Thompson’s tips about when to harvest. The recipes are inventive and  sound delicious – I’m looking forward to trying some of them out. How did I find this title? It was on display at our library – a great way to discover good, not-so-new books.

In my quest to learn about gardening and raising vegetables, I’ve been reading Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest, as we hope to experiment with raising food through the winter. Eliot’s neighbors were Helen and Scott Nearing, who launched the modern-day homesteading movement. He has made the Nearing’s home farming techniques accessible to home gardeners and small organic farmers. Living the Good Life book cover(The Nearing’s influential book, Living the Good Life (1954) is a fascinating read, by the way.)  I like Coleman’s book because it is simple and straightforward, especially accessible and inspiring to the lay person. I’ve also rediscovered a book I purchased years ago, Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. Reading the forward to Coleman’s book, I discovered that he and Damrosch are married to each other.

Kitchen Garden book coverI love to visit the many small second-hand and consignment stores in our village. We have a used crafts supply shop I like to browse in, and there I discovered old copies of Betty Crocker’s delightful Kitchen Garden (1971) by Mary Mason Campbell with illustrations by Tasha Tudor; Gardening Made Easy binder coverand Gardening Made Easy (1995), International Masters Publishers, a collection of full-color pamphlets that you order individually and store in a three-ring binder. (I believe these are now out of print.)

 

 

The Supper of the Lamb book cover

For good measure, I requested from the library a copy of The Supper of the Lamb, (1969) by Robert Farrar Capon; this “culinary entertainment” written by an Episcopal priest comes highly recommended by a friend.

So there you are, my summer reading plans – all over the map, highbrow and not, typical for me.

What will you be reading this summer?

 

 

Raised beds

A work in progress

 

Quilt

“Hello Mommie. We made it to AMERICA!!!!”

I didn’t read a book this week, I read a quilt.

Our community center hosted a quilt show last weekend, where we saw a quilt that tells one Rochester family’s story. It is well worth reading.

Created by Julie S. Brandon as a tribute to her great grandmother, Estera Blumenthal, A Cruel Twist of Fate won “Best Interpretation of a Theme” in the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Quilt Fest and 2nd prize in the 2011 Wall Hanging Diamond Jubilee Quilt Fest in Rochester.

(Photo #2 may be more legible. If you have a View function on your computer, select Zoom In. The conclusion is in Photo #3.)

Quilt with writing and photo

A Cruel Twist of Fate, by Julie S. Brandon

 

Excerpts from family letters

See the conclusion below.

Telegram

Life After Life

Life After Life book cover

The first time Ursula Todd is born, on a snowy winter night in England, 1910, she dies before she makes it out of the birth canal. Then the story starts over and Ursula is born again, only to die a few years later when she falls off a roof. She’s born yet again and subsequently dies in childhood from the Spanish flu.

Ursula is born over and over again, and along the way she makes different choices that prolong her life and send her down alternate paths. Ultimately, she and the reader arrive at World War II, which is at the heart of this novel, and a new round of opportunities for Ursula to live or die.

Once I got the hang of this unusual plot device, I became entranced with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Judging from the reviews I’ve read, readers either love or hate that Ursula has multiple lives and multiple deaths. In moments of deja vu, Ursula senses death is just around the corner and, somehow, she must do something different in order to stay alive.

There is a short opening scene in Life After Life that occurs before Ursula’s birth that is completely mystifying until many pages into the book, when you begin to understand Ursula’s lives could eventually lead to something big, to her being in the right place at the right time to prevent great suffering. As each death opens the door to a new life, Ursula begins to discover a moral purpose for her existence, one that requires great courage and sacrifice. In a sense, she lives each life more perfectly than the one before it.

We see, for example, that who you marry can make a difference in who you ultimately become, and it can change the course of your life entirely. I’m partial to fiction about World War II, and through Ursula’s many lives I saw her experience the war from different vantage points, all riveting and poignant. She has many second chances – wouldn’t we all like to have second chances? Watching Ursula inspired me to think about how I want to live my life. It made me want to make more courageous choices and not worry so much about the outcome.

This is one book that will stay with me. I look forward to reading more of Kate’s fiction.

 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism….I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translation….Above all…I find slim literary memoirs about little old men whose little old wives have died from cancer to be absolutely intolerable.”   A.J. Fikry, bookseller, in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry bookcover

This is a quick, funny, sweet read about a bookseller who is down on his luck and turning quite bitter in his middle age. It’s a tribute to booksellers, book lovers, beloved authors, and their stories.  A Good Man is Hard to Find” (Flannery O’Conner), Lamb to the Slaughter” (Roald Dahl), The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Tell-Tale Heart” (Edgar Allen Poe), Ironhead” (Aimee Bender), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Raymond Carver), Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace), and many others have little parts to play in Gabrielle Zevin’s clever story.

After something good follows the tragic turn in A.J.’s life, he begins to change.

He’s inspired to write pithy little reviews for someone he loves. This is what he has to say about A Good Man is Hard to Find”  - 

“It’s Amy’s favorite. (She always seems so sweet on the surface, no?)…When she told me it was her favorite, it suggested to me strange and wonderful things about her character that I had not guessed, dark places that I might like to visit.”

You can tell a lot about a person by the books she loves.

 

Buenas Noches, Luna

Buenas Noches, Luna book cover

We’ve been in El Sauce, Nicaragua on vacation and doing volunteer work. We gave the classic Buenas Noches, Luna by Margaret Wise Brown to a couple of children in El Sauce. Reading it was a nightly ritual with my oldest son many years ago. This wonderful book still has universal appeal.

Street in El Sauce, Nicaragua

Morning in El Sauce

Volcano in Nicaragua

Nica volcano

Ruben Dario passage on chalkboard

We saw this passage by Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario in a Leon cafe.

Moon over the Pacific

Goodnight, moon (over the Pacific)

Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze

frost on window

Frost on our window

It was a bright winter’s day when I took this photograph, but it came out dark, evoking for me the deep winter chill of our snowbound evenings in upstate New York, which are perfect for reading books by the fire.

Before winter’s end, you must read The Snow Child.  Based on a Russian folk tale, The Snow Child suspends you between fantasy and reality in remote, 1920s Alaska. (One of many English versions of the Russian folk tale is “The Little Daughter of the Snow” in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.)

Mabel and Jack, a childless, middle-aged couple, move from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan Territory to homestead on 160 acres of land. For ten years, they’ve been locked in a private world of grief over their stillborn child; Mabel, especially, hopes to escape from all the young families and children who remind her of her sadness.

One day, they build a snow child whom they dress in a red scarf and mittens. The snow child melts, but a little girl with a fox begins to appear in the woods around their cabin. Is she real, or is she an unearthly fairy child born of their own longing? You’ll find yourself see-sawing between Jack’s harsh, real-world view of who, exactly, the girl they call Faina is, and Mabel’s wishful, fantastical, mystical one.

For me, The Snow Child (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was ideal reading: perfect for the time of year, entrancing, deceptively simple storytelling set in a frontier that has fascinated me of late. I kept thinking of the breathtaking world evoked in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes of virgin land, animals and people at risk from encroaching civilization, and I think of Faina as a metaphor for the wild and untamable.

Faina embodies, for me, my deep-rooted desire to have and love children. Mabel and Jack, through Faina, do find their hearts’ desire but, like all parents, they eventually must let go.

I loved how Mabel finds another kind of fulfillment through her art, and learns to channel grief, insights, and a growing love of the natural world into renderings and sketches.

The Snow Child is our city’s “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” choice for 2014. The author, Eowyn Ivey, will travel here from her home in Alaska for three days (March 19- 21) of readings and talks at local schools, libraries, and Rochester’s Writers & Books.

We take “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” very seriously here. We began marking it in January with countless book clubs discussing The Snow Child over tea and hot chocolate; writing workshops and readings by Ken Waldman, an Alaskan poet and fiddler; short, short plays that contain the word “fox” written and performed by locals at Geva Theatre Center; and for kids, making paper snowflakes and readings/discussions of fairy tales from Russia and around the world.

Still to come:  on February 20 a presentation of “Alaskan Odyssey: Cruising the Inside Passage and Beyond”; on February 28 an exhibition of winter images at Image City Photography Gallery; on March 4 a demonstration of basket weaving in the Alaskan tribal pattern; and a Snow Day party with music, fruit pies in flavors inspired by the novel, and a scavenger hunt on March 7.

On March 8 a how-to-survive-in-the-snow adventure at Mendon Ponds Park sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter will explore whether or not a little girl could survive in the winter wilderness. Also on March 8 there will be an Afternoon of Winter Fancies: Creative Movement Workshops and Flights of Winter Fancy at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance; and on March 18 – 19 an exhibition of quilts inspired by The Snow Child, sponsored by the Genesee Valley Quilt ClubEach quilt will be a “novel” and feature the artist’s love of quilting and reading.

On March 4, Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski, who has been to just about every country in the world, will host a Sleeping in Ice class at the Penfield Public Library. (Rick has spent many nights sleeping in igloos and snow shelters; my husband travelled to Alaska with him, but that’s another story.) Rick will demonstrate how to make an igloo in the backyard and how to survive a surprise blizzard in the mountains.

For those of you who are local, you can find a complete schedule of Snow Child events here.

Snow Maiden in forest

Snow Maiden, Viktor M. Vasnetsov

The Snow Child book cover

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