Sunday, April 15, 2012

James Chandler: Titanic Centennial Celebration

Bowker's issued a press release about the 98 books published for the Centennial of the Titanic's sinking. Most seem to look at the same event from different angles or work with Cameron's version. No one attempts to change the outcome -- until this one.

Want to read a happy ending, an alternative that could have transpired even with no change in the surroundings that night? A man coming of age, a love he's just met, a challenge he meets in an unconventional way, turning his odd vision into a beacon for survival.

Read the story here for free:

ADRIFT, by James Chandler

James Chandler is the editor of Fallen Leaf Anthology (twenty writers attending The Write Retreat at Stanford Sierra Camp collectively present more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) and long time member of Kepler's Writing Group.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jennifer duBois: Mental Distress Across Culture and History

    The New York Times Magazine recently ran a fascinating article about the group of teenage girls in upstate New York who succumbed, en masse, to a set of mysterious symptoms—such as twitching and spasming—for which no satisfactory biological explanation can be found. One girl was afflicted with the symptoms, then another and another, until the affliction has spread fairly widely throughout the school. Many of the sufferers are cheerleaders. The story has attracted much national attention, and the incidence of the symptoms seems to rise and fall with the level of media scrutiny. After ruling out environmental explanations, some experts have concluded that the girls are suffering from conversion disorder—commonly called mass hysteria. But perhaps understandably, many of the victims and their families are resistant to this diagnosis, in part because it sounds like an accusation that the girls are faking their symptoms—and their symptoms, it turns out, are pretty hard to fake.

     Reading this piece reminded me of an amazing book I read a couple of years ago called Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters. In it, Watters argues that mental illness, unlike physical illness, manifests itself in culturally distinct ways. In different cultures, different symptoms are scanned as reflective of psychic pain—and thus, in different cultures different symptoms of psychic pain appear. Watters argues for a more culturally aware approach toward global mental health, raising the interesting example of schizophrenia—understood as the product of malfunctioning brains in the West, and of demonic possession in certain African cultures. In those cultures, because the problem is understood as external to the individual, schizophrenics are more accepted and well-integrated into their families during periods of wellness and calm. Watters also discusses the case of anorexia, which is widely and popularly believed to be a function of the Western media’s obsession with image and emphasis on thinness. But he raises the point that when anorexia first emerged as a set of symptoms it was not often accompanied by the body dysmorphia we often believe to be its hallmark today—it usually afflicted a young woman on the heels of a romantic heartbreak, and first presented as vague stomach problems and an inability to eat. A similar disorder is arising among young women in Hong Kong, where the disease is not understood—at least not by its sufferers—as a pursuit of thinness, but is in fact experienced as a sensation of chronic stomach discomfort or fullness.

      I was reminded of all of this while reading the article about the cheerleaders in upstate New York. When no external and organic explanation for the girls’ symptoms was found, sufferers were understandably hesitant to accept the diagnosis of conversion disorder—feeling that this was, on some level, an implication that their disease was not real. Crazy Like Us gives us another way of understanding their symptoms: as a culturally influenced manifestation of an underlying, and very real, psychic issue. It shouldn’t surprise us that symptoms of mental distress are variable across culture and history, or that certain mental symptoms can be unusual, transitory, or even, on some level, ‘contagious.’ After all, the brain is in constant dialogue with the culture around it, which makes diagnosing and caring for it an even stranger project than caring for our bodies.  My mother tells the incredible story of how, as a young candy striper volunteering in a V.A. hospital, she roused a catatonic patient from his stupor by offering him a glass of what she thought was apple juice—it was, in fact, his urine sample. His vigorous head shaking was his first movement in months, and he subsequently made a dramatic and full recovery. Though for some reason, this never made it into the medical protocol.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jennifer duBois: When One Falls In Love With a Book

     Really loving a book—especially one that not everyone else in the world has read—comes with a very particular blend of emotions. There’s the feeling of private elation, as though the book’s been written for you personally. There’s that impulse to babble to everyone about how much you loved the book. And there’s the sense of gratitude that, out of the vast universe of books, this particular book happened to find you. All of these feelings are heightened, I think, when one falls in love with a book that has, in one way or another, only recently emerged and become available to you—either through a translation or an exhumation or a re-release. Over the past decade, I’ve read three books of this sort that have particularly stayed with me: Embers by Sandor Marai, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, and There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

     Desperate Characters, originally published in 1970, was re-released in 1999 after many years out of print. It’s a prickly and perfect little book, written with economy and grace and wryness and an astonishing command of our sympathies. Fox skewers the solipsism of her characters—Sophie and Otto Bentwood, fragile inhabitants of late-60s New York—without ever abandoning her empathy for them, and she’s a master of strange and chilling and small domestic symbolism (the plot mostly revolves around Sophie waiting to find out if she’s contracted rabies from the bite of a stray cat). Sophie and Otto’s lives provide the perfect canvass to delineate, with wrenching clarity, the changing social and political landscape of the time. Desperate Characters is that very rare thing—a social novella, no less wise and prophetic for being so slim.  

     Embers was written in Hungarian in 1949, fell out of print forever, and was translated into English in 2000, eleven years after Marai committed suicide. It’s an enchanting and haunting novella, told mostly as an elegant monologue—and extended accusation— delivered by an aging general to an old friend he’s invited over for dinner. The fact of the general’s direct address invites us to feel implicated in the events he describes—and I think in a strange way this device manages to subvert the possible artificial coyness of withholding the revelation of what’s occurred. By telling us what’s happened as though we already know, we sort of feel as though we do. This book feels like a fairy tale in the very best way, and its emergence from obscurity (and Hungarian) adds to this mythic feel. 

      There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is a collection of stories that were selected and translated into English by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen and published in 2009. Though widely known in Russia, this collection was Petrushevskaya’s first English translation from a major American house. The stories are deeply strange and spare and utterly singular; they grapple with the inexplicable; they careen from dreaminess to nighmarishness, and from the literal to the metaphorical, and back again. They straddle realism and surrealism in a way that is both disturbing and gorgeous; one is always left wondering, deliciously, what kind of story one has just read. 
     All three of these books would be lovely and thrilling no matter what—at any time, and in any language. But the fact that they’ve only recently become accessible to me, as a reasonably young reader of English, makes them—at least to me—even more intoxicating and compelling. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jennifer duBois: How should one proceed when the cause is lost?

Not long ago, I was asked in a radio interview what I might do if confronted with the situation my character, Irina, finds herself in A Partial History of Lost CausesGiven a diagnosis of impending Huntington’s disease--the fatal neurological disease that she’d watched slowly kill her father—Irina runs away from her life. She leaves her boyfriend and mother and job and friends, and she goes to Russia to ask Aleksandr Bezetov (a chess champion turned dissident, loosely based on Garry Kasparov) a pretty abstract question: how should one proceed when the cause is lost? In the book, the tenuousness of Irina’s links to her life—most importantly, her relationships—allows her to go on this strange last adventure. Might I do something similar, the interviewer asked, if I were in Irina’s shoes? How might I look for meaning? I said that I’d have to run away to Russia to find Garry Kasparov, of course, but that was not at all true. The question made me contemplate Irina’s profound and distinctive isolation, and the ways in which this feature of her character enables the book’s plot. And the experience of promoting Partial History has reminded me (as if I could ever forget), how very different I am from Irina on this score—and how the existence of the book itself, and Irina in particular, feels to me to be a very communal effort.

The truth is, I think I would probably do the opposite of what Irina does if I was in her situation: I imagine I would cling to my fiancé and my mother and my friends; I would tediously invest in my relationships; and though I’m sure I’d share a huge portion of Irina’s self-pity and fear, her philosophical concerns (even for a former philosophy major like myself) might, at the end of the day, turn out to be pretty low on my list of priorities. This would probably be a typical response; after all, millions of people confront the exact same diagnosis as Irina without doing anything so dramatic and self-indulgent as she does. But I wanted to write a story about someone who does do something dramatic and who is propelled by the abstract, and that meant writing a character like Irina: isolated in the extreme, at least at the book’s beginning, and unable to invest (or so she thinks) in much of anything—even though she recognizes, on some level, that her problem is really everyone’s problem (namely, mortality).

It’s been interesting, then, for me to read from the point of view of such a remote person to bookstore crowds composed overwhelmingly of my relatives and teachers and friends and friends of friends and parents and cousins and in-laws of friends, many of whom contributed to the book in ways known and unknown to them: the Iowa classmate who gave me brilliant line edits and the fourth grade teacher who let me write stories with spelling words instead of taking spelling tests; the Stanford colleague who directly solved a second chapter problem and the great college friend/ghost publicist who tirelessly promoted the book to everyone, everywhere; the hugely talented high school buddy who took my author photo and the inspiring history teacher who pushed me to deal with my public speaking fear; the tireless Alzheimer’s home health aide, who gave Irina her pragmatism; my widowed mother and widowed aunt, who gave Irina her resilience.

In A Partial History of Lost Causes, Irina’s isolation grants her a freedom to do things that—at least narratively, and at least to my mind—are more interesting than the things that most normal, reasonably socialized people might do in her place. So I’m glad that Irina is a solitary person. But I’m also glad that I’m not. Because standing behind Irina—even though she doesn’t know it—is an entire army of people I’ve learned from and loved. And they have made both of us possible.