Exceptional journalism for troubled times

 

fivedays

 

When I was a practicing medical librarian, I read an extraordinary work of medical humanities journalism by Sheri Fink, MD: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. 

Dr. Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her initial coverage of the disaster that played out in a New Orleans hospital serving the poor during Hurricane Katrina, and she is currently doing excellent reporting on the pandemic for The New York Times.

I wrote about Five Days at Memorial on Books Can Save a Life in 2014. I’m including a condensed version of the post below, because in pandemic hot spots around the United States, critical care resources are being stretched to their limits – needlessly so, thanks to the scandalously inadequate national response to COVID-19 – as they were in Hurricane Katrina.

Immersive and meticulously researched journalism like Dr. Fink’s can make these issues real for us in a way that is immediate and clarifying.

Secondly, I’m looking to pass along responsible, innovative journalism in this climate of conspiracy theories and misinformation. For excellent reporting about our current pandemic, for example, read or listen to Ed Yong’s work in The Atlantic, especially his must-read article published today, “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”

Here’s what Yong had to say about the current role of journalism in an interview with CNN: (Thanks to Tom Jones of The Poynter Report for passing this along.)

“I think of the information around the pandemic as rapids, really fast flowing torrential water. It’s so easy to be swept up in it and feel like you’re being carried along, feeling like you’re drowning in it. What I think really good journalism can do is to act as a rock in the middle of that fast flow to give people stable ground where they can stand and observe what is moving past them without being carried along by it.”

Below is a streamlined version of my original post about Five Days at Memorial:

“He would push 10 mg of morphine and 5 mg of the fast-acting sedative drug Versed and go up from there.”  –  Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

Five Days at Memorial is about five days in hell.

After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, staff at Memorial Medical Center thought the facility and everyone in it had survived the storm intact.

Then the levees broke and the water came.

Darkness ensued, air conditioning stopped, and life support equipment shut down. No rescue was forthcoming from federal, state, or local disaster relief agencies or the hospital’s corporate owners. Toilets overflowed. Hospital staff occasionally heard gunshots in the surrounding neighborhood.

Memorial Medical Center had no evacuation plan for a disaster of this type, and staff were not trained in disaster management, even though the hospital had a history of flooding.

To get patients (most of them frail and elderly) to the helipad for the occasional helicopter that eventually did show up, staff had to carry them in sheets down several flights of dark stairs, through a small shaft into the parking garage, and up two more flights. This took well over half an hour for each patient.

By the time Memorial Medical Center was entirely evacuated, 45 patients had died. Twenty-three bodies were found to have high levels of morphine and other drugs.  According to the account Dr. Fink pieced together, it was alleged some patients were going to die anyway – they wouldn’t survive evacuation – and so they were euthanized to prevent suffering.

Dr. Fink covers the legal and political aftermath and discusses the role of families (or lack of it if they are excluded) in making difficult care decisions when resources are scarce. She calls for comprehensive national disaster response requirements for all US hospitals.

Five Days at Memorial will leave you unsettled by the perfect storm of failure on every level, and considerably more informed about the rationing of health care resources and the nearly impossible ethical decisions that must be made in disasters when there are not enough resources to save everyone.

Dr. Fink’s book could, literally, save lives.

Racism and social justice

Two outstanding, timely works of journalism I’ll be reading and posting about soon are by Pulitzer Prize winning Isabel Wilkerson. 

Wilkerson is an immensely gifted writer who spent decades researching and writing the two books below. In this powerful TED talk, she highlights the theme of her book The Warmth of Other Suns. Her Caste is getting rave reviews, and I expect will be on many a reading list this fall.

CasteCaste: The Origins of our Discontents (just published in the US today)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (See Claire’s excellent post over at Word by Word.)

 

A Paradise Built in Hell, Redux

ParadiseBuilt

I thought this would be a good time to repost my thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster as we take on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading this post, and Rebecca’s Paradise, which highlights how strong, healing communities spontaneously arise in disaster, is mind-boggling, because now we are challenged to build community in isolation.

Can this be done? Will disaster utopias arise even as we remain apart?

I haven’t begun to unpack these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think about community in this time of pandemic? Do Solnit’s thoughts and research hold true now?

(I will say one thing: listening to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings has been extraordinarily bolstering. This growing community of virtual listeners has quickly come to extend well beyond the boundaries of New York State.)

Here is what I wrote a year ago:

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.

In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.

Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.

We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.

We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.

Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”

Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:

“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’

She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’

All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)

In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….

In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”

So what do you think? Does this hold true even as we stay home, communicating not face to face, but via screens and smartphones? Tell us what you think in the comments.

If you are looking for a new nonfiction author to read during the pandemic’s long hours, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit. Her other titles include:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

 

A Paradise Built in Hell

ParadiseBuilt

 

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.

In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.

Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.

We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.

We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.

Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”

Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:

“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’

She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’

All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)

(Her portrayal of Katrina reminded me of the riveting Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, about a New Orleans hospital forced to cope on its own, with disastrous results. I wrote about this on Books Can Save a Life when I was a medical librarian and interested in the issue of medical rationing during disasters, something we’ll be hearing more about in the coming years.)

In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….

In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”

 

InfiniteCitySanFra n

I found Solnit’s San Francisco Atlas when I traveled there to visit our son and attend a memoir conference. Her Infinite City series includes New York and New Orleans. Not your standard atlases, but quirky reinvented ones, an acquired taste that conceives of cities as complex layers of culture, history, architecture, trends, personal stories, you name it. Intriguing, but somewhat text-heavy for my taste. Compiled with the help of cartographers, artists, and writers, the San Francisco Atlas includes a map called “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders” that pairs ancient/current salmon migrations with Zen Buddhism arrivals.

 

IMG_9031

My son gave me Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, though I haven’t read it yet. Here’s a passage from the essay, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the Post-American Landscape.” (I’m all for Rust Belt writing.) Solnit is often funny, always astute:  “….the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests….but….as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it [the mural] portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely – and sometimes even beautifully – post-American….This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya.”

I highly recommend getting to know Rebecca Solnit, especially if you’re restless to find a new nonfiction writer who is entertaining and spot-on when it comes to portraying our current culture, or if you need to become re-enchanted with the world. I have my eye on reading these books by her someday:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

From the dark specter of an uninhabitable earth, to Solnit’s redeeming vision of community and resilience to, next up, a book well on its way to becoming a classic: one that shows us how to constructively turn inward, live slowly, and cultivate an authentic, deeply felt creativity that can be our gift to a world that sorely needs it. Hint: the author is Christian McEwen.

What are you reading now? Fiction? Nonfiction? Books worth your time, I hope. Please let us know your recommendations in the comments.

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