Tag Archives: aging

Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: Steven Petrow

“Throw it in the fuck it bucket.”

I almost passed this book over as the synopsis sounded…. well… judgey. After finishing Steven Petrow’s Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old, I’m glad that I read listened to this audiobook. It is amusing but more than that, it made me think. The author starts with, as the title suggests, a list of things he swears he will NOT do when he is old, and this was generated by watching his parents age and grow ill. After the death of his parents, he reread his list and realized that the motivations behind the list were complex. He added that he sees “more clearly now that I meant the list to serve as a pointed reminder to me to make different choices when I eventually crossed the threshold into my senior, sunset or silver years.” The short chapters are infused with humour, anecdote, and then backed up with facts and figures.

My attention was almost immediately pulled into the author’s quest to understand aging and its challenges when he asks at age 63 “am I old?” So he begins asking friends on Facebook ‘when are we old?’ The answers were varied–some amusing, some poignant. Physical limitations were mentioned a lot, and I suspect that those markers were significant for those who define themselves by their physical ability. I wonder if this cohort will have a harder time aging–I suspect so. I was, then, interested to hear that “old is not synonymous with ill, disabled or even injured.” Researchers state that the old-age “threshold” in America is 71 for men and 74 for women, and that “our true age” contains many factors, including how happy we are.

In one chapter, “I Won’t Colour My Hair,” Steven Petrow describes his “unfortunate adventure in hair colouring.” After spending 100s of $ trying to fix a bad dye job, Petrow still ended up looking like a “trashy secretary from Staten Island.” It gets guts to publicly point out one’s mistakes, laugh about it, and move on. Other chapters include discussing habits that “mark” us as “geriatric” and “Elder Abuse of Technology“–phrases and habits that scream: “Old Person On the Loose Online.” (OPOTLO)

Another chapter, “I Won’t Lie About My Age–Even on Dating Apps” discusses the author’s experience with online dating. After separating from his husband, the author Joined Tinder, Match and OKCupid and here he learned that many people lied about their age while admitting he “used to be one of those people who shaved a few years, or more, off their true age. either to avoid appearing like a dinosaur or to improve their odds of finding a match online.” He joined in with the “fudging” but then was outed by his Wikipedia page. It’s funny, but not surprising, to hear how age cheaters on dating sites are prolific and that users screen for age-cheaters by lie-detecting questions, such as “where were you when…?” Petrow describes how an age-fibber created a “cheat sheet.” It’s really hilarious and sounds like so much work. Too much work.

Another chapter discusses sexuality. Petrow had testicular cancer in his 20s and so had to confront sexual difficulties early. Discussing sexual issues segues into the idea of how we all too often obsess on our health/issues/illness as we age in the chapter called “I Won’t Join the Organ Recital.” Recently, in line at the pharmacy, I noticed a few older customers, strangers, discussing their colonoscopies much to the disgust of a few thirty somethings also waiting–a trapped and horrified audience. This is a perfect example of exactly what the author means by talking, sometimes exhaustively, about health issues, which, let’s face it, younger generations must find boring and embarrassing. Hoarding, driving, falling, hearing loss, personal cleanliness, grumpiness all come up for discussion.

Ultimately this is an extremely positive, life-affirming book. One chapter that stuck with me is: “I Won’t Stop Enjoying Myself,” for its great outlook. This book has a target audience, and while most of the content can be applied to all of us–some things are considerations for those who have the extra funds to apply to life (wardrobe, assisted living, reconsidering employment options). This is not a criticism of the book–just an observation. I’m also going to add that some of this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to be old but still be able to go sit in the garden and smell the roses–literally or figuratively, but quite another to keep up one’s spirits if you’re the 90 something wheelchair bound lady with oxygen in her nose who’s parked in the doctor’s office by her family who will “send someone to pick her up” tout suite (and yes, I just observed this to my horror). Finally Steven Petrow kept me entertained and engaged. I’d already started Swedish Death Cleaning (without knowing the term) and I’d already committed to embracing and enjoying my old age. But then some of us have a high happiness set point, and some of us don’t. In other words, some of us are destined to be old misery guts/ratbags. You know who you are. … Obviously the author is NOT one of those people: he’s a fan of Mel Brooks and stresses the importance of laughter. So here’s to enjoying ourselves: After all, we’re only old once.

The late great Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Petrow Steven, posts

Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

How nerve-wracking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”

At the heart of Muriel Spark’s wickedly funny novel, Memento Mori, lies a chain of anonymous phone calls in which the speaker says “Remember, you must die.” These anonymous calls set off a series of events as various characters react to the calls with anger, terror and, in some cases, interest. While most of the characters in the novel are connected, the telephone calls bring other characters together, but perhaps the least predictable fallout from the phone calls is the way in which the past comes calling in various ways. So here’s a breakdown of the characters:

Dame Lettie Colston. Unmarried, one of those social do-gooders. Busy bossy everyone about and arranging their lives.

Godfrey Colston, heir to a brewing company. Perennially unfaithful to his wife. “Obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.”

Charmain Colston, novelist. Dotty. But not as dotty as she appears.

Charmain’s former employee Jean Taylor who lives in a nursing home. She’s mostly glad that she lives there and isn’t subject to the wild emotional challenges of life outside of the home.

Lisa Brooke, deceased, a woman whose death unleashes other plot developments.

Guy Leet, charming, even now in old age and ill health. Charmain’s former lover.

Mrs. Pettigrew. Lisa Brooke’s conniving housekeeper

Alec Warner. A emotional vampire whose obsessive, morbid interest in the health and health reactions to exciting or traumatic news reflects his own fear of morality.

Various residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward

Inspector Mortimer, retired, who investigates the phone calls.

Other minor characters

While chapter one kicks off with an anonymous call, the plot thickens when Dame Lettie, a dreadful bossy woman, persuades her brother, Godfrey to employ Mrs. Pettigrew to ‘take care of’ Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew was supposed to inherit her employer, Lisa Brooke’s estate, but since that doesn’t work out as planned, Mrs. Pettigrew must move on to pastures new. Dame Lettie, a woman who lacks a particle of empathy, argues that Charmian “needs a bully,” and her desire to see Charmain in thrall to Mrs. Pettigrew is not without malice:

Mrs. Pettigrew has a constitution like a horse,” said Dame Lettie, casting a horse-dealer’s glance over Mrs. Pettigrew’s upright form. “And it is impossible to get younger women.”

“Has she got all her faculties?

“Of course. She had poor Lisa right under her thumb.”

“I hardly think Charmain would want to —

“Charmain needs to be bullied. What Charmain needs is a firm hand. She will simply go to pieces if you don’t keep at her. Charmain needs a firm hand. It’s the only way.

At the core of the novel, lies mortality. An unfaithful husband find innovative ways of straying, nasty people become nastier, and dottiness is a refuge from the more unpleasant things in life. Charmain, who ponders the limits of marital obligation, Jean, who proves immensely powerful, even from a care home, and Guy, who remains pleasant company in spite of ill health, bad luck and old age, are the nicest characters in the book. Mrs. Pettigrew with her very practiced way of infantilizing the elderly is the nastiest person in the book with Dame Lettie as the runner-up. Mrs. Pettigrew insinuates herself into the good graces of those with power, and coopts others, who don’t want to be seen as dotty, into her crew. What a horrible woman.

Memento Mori: Latin translation: Remember you must/have to die. (I had to look it up.) So it’s no surprise that the themes of death and dying appear here, and while that may seem morbid, how one choses to approach life, how one accepts aging, and how one choses to live life are also themes. Charmain has chosen to approach life in a very particular way–as has Guy Leet, in spite of ill health. At the same time, there’s 87-year-old Godfrey choosing to pursue women–even if these days it means paying for the privilege (in more ways than one) of salivating over the view of a suspender belt. Somehow Muriel Spark’s mordant, black comedy brings the idea of the best way to live one’s life, and how to waste it, in sharp relief.

“Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?” Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

“Well I would like the war news,” Charmain said.

“The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,” Dame Lettie said. “If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean, perhaps …?”

There are lessons here about death and dying, but there are also lessons for life. The novel argues that people don’t change. Youthful bores become old bores. Pleasant, kind young people become pleasant kind, old people. We don’t change. We distill.

A delightful, darkly comic read.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care: Moira Welsh

After reading Leisureville, I stumbled across Moira Welsh’s non-fiction book Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care. Since I was on a roll when it came to reading about aging, I decided to take a chance and see what I could learn. As it turned out, I learned a lot. Canadian author Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter, with a career focus on the elderly. The book was written during the COVID pandemic, and considering how hard nursing homes have been hit, the book’s publication is timely. Covid was fueled by “the system that controls seniors homes. For decades, long-term care has operated on a tight budget, draining the life pleasure of the people who reside within while devaluing the work of staff forcing many to work in two or three locations just to make a living wage. This is how the virus spreads from one home to the next.” Someone I know runs a care home and, under Covid, he says “it’s like being in a war zone.”

After a long career in journalism Moira Welsh acknowledges that her stories “always exposed the negative, neglect, abuse and isolation with the goal of improving the system.” This book takes a look at the established system of care for the elderly and then examines some of the revolutionary alternatives. As a result, writing the book, visiting the various homes, was, the author explains “like opening a door to another world.”

At one point, an Emotion-Based care “observational audit” is conducted in a highly rated care home by David Sheard, Founder of Dementia Care Matters. There are some descriptions of typical ‘interactions’ between residents and staff–for example– staff checked icons on computer screens such as “food eaten” “bodily functions” etc. There’s one mention of residents parked “like cars in a parking lot.” Residents are ignored, meals served with staff “whisking away plates on schedule.” Yes it’s all very efficient but rather ignores the whole premise that we are dealing with people here. For this reader, it sounds like the staff are monitoring lab rats. The author states that “neutral care is a form of abuse,” and I agree. One image that sticks in my mind is that of a nurse entering a room every once in a while and tossing a ball at the residents who are parked in a circle.

The author describes various new approaches to Elder Care: The Butterfly Model and its emotion-based care (uniforms banned, hallways painted bright colours, removing central dining rooms), The Eden Alternative, The Golden Girls Network, The Pioneer Network, Toronto HomeShare Programme, The Green House Project, and an incredibly interesting visit to a nursing home in the Netherlands. Another approach, outside of any sort of institutional, is the growth of acceptance of “Tiny Houses.” The book is packed with various stories of improvement in residents when Emotion-Based Care became the underlying philosophy of the various care homes. It may be difficult to formulate studies that scientifically measure specific improvements in residents, but things under consideration are a decrease in medication, less aggression, putting on weight, increased interactions. Other results are anecdotal and not so easy to measure– improvements in resident social behaviours, for example. Of course none of this comes cheap. Canada predicts that the cost of long-term care will increase from 22 billion in 2019 to 71 billion in 2050.

This is a very upbeat look at a depressing subject. The author argues that a shift in social attitudes is underfoot and must continue. There were a few too many sentimental anecdotes for my taste, but at the same time, it’s probably hard to avoid given the topic. I would have like more $$ numbers because that’s how my brain works. I would have liked more on the kids that stuff their parents in homes while looting the estate. I would also have liked more on the ethics of homes providing services to residents (there’s one near me that provides cleaners). I know it’s based on the hotel type of model, but I keep thinking about Better Call Saul. But all these things belong in another book. Or two.

Anyway…. I learned a lot that I had no idea about, and the book gave me food for thought. I decided to chop down some of the ornamental trees in my back garden as the annual trimming (on ladder) is something I can do without going forward. There are a few times in the book when numbers are bandied about. One home costs over 6K a month. Another 9-10K. I know someone who pays 8K a month. Good care doesn’t come cheap; I get it, but ye gods who can afford this??? In America the average social security check is around $1500 a month (numbers vary). Social security estimates that 50% of married couples and 70% of singles receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. It’s debatable just how many Americans rely of social security alone. There’s a range of numbers on the internet–anywhere from 12% -40%.

During the creation of this book, the author had to confront her aging parents’ health issues which necessitated a move from their home, and her very personal experience is both candid and tender.

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Welsh Moira

The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner (1976)

“At our age, news is all bad. I don’t like standing in line for the guillotine.”

It’s the 1970s, and 69-year-old, retired literary agent Joe Allston lives with his wife Ruth near Palo Alto, California. Their only son, Curtis died years earlier while surfing, maybe an accident, maybe not, and now Joe and Ruth live a quiet life. Joe, “irritable and depressed,” is pushed by his wife into gathering together all of the papers and notes from his career in order to write a memoir:

The writers I represented left their monuments, consequential or otherwise. I might have done the same if I had not, at the bottom of the Depression, been forced to chose whether I would be a talent broker or a broke talent. I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or in men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that prove I ever existed.

Joe who sees himself as a “wise cracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people and a tourist in his own,” has many regrets about his life; he feels as though he’s been a “spectator bird” and “that there had not been one significant event in life he planned.” As Joe mulls over the dullness of his life and the road that brought him to this point, a postcard arrives from Astrid, a Danish countess the Allstons met during a holiday decades earlier. The postcard revives old memories and Joe digs out a journal he kept of the trip. The trip to Denmark was partly for Joe to investigate his roots and discover exactly why his mother left Denmark, setting sail for America at age 16. The trip is also an escape from the guilt and regrets over their estranged son’s death. While the holiday should be restorative, it becomes an unsettling Jamesian exploration of the Innocent American Abroad.

Joe narrates The Spectator Bird, and when the novel opens, it’s clear that Joe is obsessed with aging and dying. This state of affairs isn’t helped by the fact that a neighbour is dying of cancer, or that Ruth visits the local care home and encourages Joe to do the same. Then on top of that, another neighbour, an elderly doctor who is falling apart slowly but still manages to put a brave face on it, harasses Joe about his morbid frame of mind.

I had been sitting on the old timbers for about ten minutes when Ben Alexander drove in from the county road in his convertible. His top was down, his hair was tangled, and he had Edith Patterson in the seat beside him, looking like a racoon in her wraparound Hollywood shades. It was all so young and gay and California that I had to laugh. Ben is the very chief of the tribe that makes old age out to be a time of liberation. He is writing a book about it.

Ben and Ruth can see that Joe is having a miserable time aging, and they both have strategies, which always fail, to shake Joe from this frame of mind. The result is that Ruth has become more of a mother to Joe–so much so that he keeps her at arm’s length emotionally as he struggles with regrets and aging. Poor Ruth, who likes to air all emotions, has the patience of a saint. We see Joe in the present day, uncomfortable in a shifting social environment, reluctant to be around young people as they remind him of what he’s lost. He wonders if they notice him, and at the same time when he learns of a neighbour’s imminent demise he can’t confront the reality of death and instead finds it easier to pretend all is normal.

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line. You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window.

The book goes back and forth between 1970s California and Joe’s reading of the 1954 journal which Ruth insists be read aloud after she spies it in Joe’s hands. Joe does so with some reluctance as it reveals both his state of mind at the time and some rather unsavoury events that took place.

All too often authors use journals from the past or an unexpected postcard as a cheap segue into the past. Here the past and the present are perfectly and skillfully blended as we see Joe in his 40s and Joe decades later farther down the road as he faces old age. This is an incredibly introspective novel, told from Joe’s often morbid view, and that morbid view, particularly striking on the subject of age, is alleviated by Joe’s self-deprecating humour. Since this is Joe’s story, Ruth is an appendage–the little woman in the background and while she sighs a lot at Joe’s attitude to life, we never really get to know her. But then I don’t think Joe knows her either. … I can’t imagine that they had much of an emotional life together. It can’t have been easy being married to Joe. I listened to the audio book version which was beautifully read by Edward Herrmann, but unfortunately Ruth’s voice comes across as simpering.

But apart from those criticisms, I loved this book and enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This is a sombre examination of the life of one ordinary man–nothing heroic in his past, no great deeds, but as he ages and sees that nothing of him will remain after his death, he is full of regrets. This is a man whose choices were inseparable from, and seminal to, his character.

My commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue. There are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better good and good, but why cry over it twenty years later? Because in every choice there is a component maybe a big component, of pain .

 

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Stegner Wallace

The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

Review copy

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shriver Lionel

Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Strout Elizabeth

Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szabo Magda

After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

6 Comments

Filed under Mankell Henning, Fiction

Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

17 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

Review copy

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mizumura Minae