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

 

In light of Hurricane Harvey, I’m reposting this from four years ago. Five Days at Memorial is a fabulous work of investigative journalism about one hospital’s desperate decisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Much was learned the hard way about emergency preparedness in health care settings during Katrina, which seems to be making a difference as Houston copes with Hurricane Harvey. But with more mega-storms likely in our future, this is something we should all care about. Click on the link below to read my previous post about Five Days at Memorial, a work of nonfiction that has won numerous awards.

Source: Five Days at Memorial

John Steinbeck and Slow Writing

Clock, family photo

June 17, 1938

“Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead….Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with for four months. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. Ma very important. Uncle John important. Pa very. In fact all of them are important. Got to take it slowly. I don’t care how long it is. We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature. Must.”  Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938 – 1941, John Steinbeck

The Art of Slow Writing book coverI’ve just finished reading Louise DeSalvo’s wonderful The Art of Slow Writing.  I like slow cooking, slow cities, slow flowers, and slow living, so of course I had to see what slow writing is all about.

In her book, Louise looks closely at every stage of the writing process and what it takes to achieve our best work.

Slow down, she recommends. Good writing cannot be rushed.

Slow writing is not a new trend: the best writers have always been slow writers.

Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan – DeSalvo synthesizes the wisdom of these and many other writers who have spoken frankly about what it takes to go deep into our creative process to achieve stellar writing.

Louise shows us her writing process, too (she has published several memoirs and other books), and shares anecdotes about getting stuck and how she eventually found a path forward.

Working Days book coverFor those of us writing a memoir or other book-length work, De Salvo recommends studying Steinbeck’s two published writing journals: Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. She encourages us to keep our own writing journals, too, for long projects.

I’ve begun skimming Working Days. Notice in the opening quote above that John Steinbeck reminds himself to take it slowly, and give each character his or her due.

It’s surprising to see how lost Steinbeck sometimes felt and how he used his writing journal to keep himself going. Here are more excerpts:

September 7, 1938

“I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good….if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. I’ll be dead in a very short time too. [Steinbeck would live another 30 years.] So the hell with it….I must go on. I can’t stop…..How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.”

January 29, 1941

There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things. But I’ll get them all in if I just relax and get them in day by day and only worry about the 2000 words of each day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.

January 30, 1941

My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonely. 

The Grapes of Wrath book coverThe Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

It has stirred up a great deal of controversy, too. According to Robert Demott, editor of Working Days, The Grapes of Wrath has been “banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as immoral, degrading, and untruthful.”

A Free Roundtable with Louise DeSalvo

If you’re interested in finding out more about stages of the writing process and how to begin and successfully complete a book-length work, consider registering for the National Association of Memoir Writers free Roundtable (teleconference) with Louise DeSalvo on Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST. I’ll be in the audience.

All the Light We Cannot See

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”     All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeWhen she is six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc goes blind. Her widowed father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum, constructs a miniature replica of the Paris neighborhood where they live so Marie-Laure can memorize nearby streets and landmarks.

Some years later, when she and Monsieur LeBlanc flee to the coastal city of Saint-Malo during the Nazi occupation, Marie-Laure’s father constructs a replica of that city, too, so Marie-Laure can make her way around independently. Eventually, Marie-Laure joins the resistance, along with her uncle, Etienne, who is a shell-shocked World War I veteran. She finds herself quite alone on the eve of the massive American bombing of Saint-Malo in August of 1944.

In the meantime, German orphan Werner Pfennig takes a keen interest in building and fixing radios. Eventually, he is recruited by the academy for Hitler Youth. During the war, Werner tracks the resistance by searching for secret radio broadcasts. Werner detects illegal broadcasts coming from Saint-Malo, and the very street where Marie-Laure lives.

All the Light We Cannot See was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. Anthony Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland but now lives in Idaho, is a writer I intend to follow. I’ve put his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, on my holiday wish list, and am enjoying his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. His prose is breathtaking, poetic. (I’m studying favorite sentences from the novel as a writing exercise.)

When I read World War II European-front fiction I try to imagine where my father would have been at the time. He arrived in France and Luxembourg a few months after the bombing of Saint-Milo and fought during the weeks leading to the Battle of the Bulge.

Here is a 9-minute video I found on YouTube of Americans bombing and entering Saint-Malo. There were about 850 buildings in the town, and after the bombing only 150 or so remained standing.

A couple of my favorite passages from All the Light We Cannot See:

“She places a ration coupon on the counter. ‘One ordinary loaf, please.’

‘And how is your uncle?’ The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.

‘My uncle is well, thank you.’

Madame Ruelle…reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. ‘You amazing child.’

…the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. ‘Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.’

‘The mermaids, Madame?’

‘They are coming dear. Within the week.'”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama…

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“But God is only a white, cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”

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.” 

First sentences, Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverSelected first sentences, from short stories in This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz:

“I’m not a bad guy.”

“Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. This is how all these stories begin.”

“You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.”

“Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancee, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.”)

“Those last months.”

“Years later you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?”

As fate would have it, one day in April when I went to Joe Bean (whose website has great photos, including one by A. Hallinan) to meet my son and have a cup of incredible coffee, I was given a free book, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in celebration of World Book Night.

I haven’t read this Pulitzer Prize winning book yet, so I thought I would now, right along with This Is How You Lose Her.  Both books feature the narrator, Yunior, who, according to NPR reviewer Carmen Gimenez Smith, “might someday rank with Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry Angstrom as an enduring American literary protagonist.”

While we’re getting to know this next great American literary protagonist, whose native land is the Dominican Republic, I’ll be posting from Argentina, where I’ll also be rereading Imagining Argentina, visiting a larger-than-life bookstore, and….well, we’ll see.

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York, 2012.

What my best friend never told me

…he had doubts, like me, about who he was.

Korean mother and child

Nena (Ho Mi Hyung) and her Korean mother,  Ho Soon Ja, 1956

After I asked readers to share stories about books that have made a difference in their lives, I was thrilled to hear from my best friend from childhood.

Nena Adams Benhoff and I go way back.  We shared Nancy Drew books. We played piano duets and went to Brownie meetings together. We were in Mrs. Ryan’s kindergarten class of 1960 at Broadway Elementary School. Nena’s first job was in my family’s flower shop, where my father taught her floral design.

Sometimes I was a little jealous of Nena, because she was something of a celebrity in our town.

But even best friends don’t tell each other everything, and I didn’t know the whole story.

So when she sent this guest post, I was amazed. I’m still getting to know my best friend after all these years.

Here is Nena’s story.

I was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family when I was 15 months old. In my new hometown, it was a newsworthy occasion because foreign country adoptions were unheard of in the 1950s. Articles were printed in the Cleveland Press, The Plain Dealer, and the local papers. My life story was known to just about everyone in our town.

When I started school, my teachers always spoke about how wonderful it was that I, a poor little Korean orphan, was given a chance to grow up in the United States. I was expected to bring in my Korean clothes to share with the class and talk about Korea. Now, I had no memories of Korea, I wasn’t even walking when I arrived, so I really didn’t have anything to share. Only half Korean, I thought I looked more Italian than Asian. Everyone thought I should think and act Korean, when I looked and thought, “American.”

I was confused about myself and my place in the world.

When I was about thirteen, a librarian recommended a book to read.

That book was The New Year by Pearl S. Buck, the story of a mixed race boy, half Korean and half Caucasian, who was brought to the United States by his birth father’s wife at the age of ten. While his story was not at all like mine, he had doubts, like me, about who he was. In Korea he was considered American, while in the United States he was considered Korean. Pearl Buck explained about mixed race children being like “bridge organisms,” not wholly of one world or another, but joining the best attributes of both.

After reading The New Year, I must admit I was thinking quite highly of myself, as being better than anyone!

But after a short time, I came back to reality, and started the journey of just becoming myself.

Nena Adams Benhoff has been a floral designer for over forty years. She lives in Oklahoma City.

The New Year is out of print but available from used booksellers and libraries.

About Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 and the Pulitzer Prize, among other high honors and awards. She published dozens of novels, as well as short stories, biographies, and other nonfiction.

Visit Book Tips – Pearl S. Buck on the official site of the Nobel Prize to see comments by readers of Pearl Buck’s books, and to comment on your favorite books by Nobel Prize winners.

Share your book stories

If you’d like to share a story about a book that is special to you, send an email to valoriegracehallinan[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line: My Book Story. Please include a post of about 500 words or less in the body of the email or an idea/book you’re interested in writing about.

Why There Should Have Been a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

There was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded this year because none of the three finalists received a majority vote from the Pulitzer board.

The judges who screened 300 or so books, narrowed the field to three, and submitted their choices to the board were just as surprised as everyone else when the decision was announced.

I think there should have been a fiction Pulitzer winner this year. Here’s why:

  1. Ann Patchett said so.
  2. Authors of books that may have been years in the making shouldn’t be denied the chance to win this prestigious prize just because they published in 2011.
  3. Fiction needs all the support it can get. The book as a form of artistic expression is reinventing itself before our eyes, and some think it may go the way of the dinosaur. This isn’t the time to be stingy with book awards.
  4. The Pulitzer Prize celebrates great storytelling about who we are and how we live in America. The three nominated books, as well as the other contenders, had important and unique things to say about that. Prizes such as the Pulitzer bring more readers to these works.
  5. We reward our sports figures and entertainers lavishly. Our greatest storytellers will never make that kind of money or achieve the fame of baseball players and movie stars, but they do deserve to be rewarded and honored.
  6. Many books published in 2011 were good enough to have been chosen, not just the three nominated; the lack of a prize creates the impression NO books were deemed worthy. I would think this was especially disappointing to the authors of two of the nominated books. (The Pale King was published posthumously.)

One of the disappointed judges said perhaps this will draw readers to three deserving books, rather than just one.

Maybe the Pulitzer board should change the rules so no artist or artistic form suffers when the numbers don’t add up just right.

The three Pulitzer nominees were:

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

There are many fantastic books from 2011 to choose from. Let’s all buy one to show our support for the great writers and the great books.

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