I wrote down everything I read and began writing my own first novel...

This blog aimed to contrast what I was reading in in 1975-79 with the same month, week and day, 30 years later in 2005-2009. I'm leaving the blog up in archive mode, blogging in real time on Live Journal--and still writing novels.

Lynne Murray's Live Journal and Bride of the Dead Blog

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Death in the land of denial

My house-feral cat, Belladonna died on August 13th, and the process of being with her, particularly in her last few hours reminded me how words just cannot truly describe it. I feel like a jerk for all the times I've written using the word death, that now seem to have nothing to do with its implacable reality.

Whatever I’ve learned about the experience of death has been totally from sitting with my mother in 1980, my husband in 1991 and some of my cats who died at home when I could be with them. These experiences had enough common elements that the morning of August 13th I could tell that Belladonna wouldn't see another dawn as clearly as anything I've ever known.

Death used to happen at home and the process was pretty common knowledge, but now in our “advanced” culture it is often hidden behind hospital walls. I couldn't help but think of how the young Siddhartha Gautama (later the Buddha) was shielded by his loving parents from even the sight of illness, old age and death.

I was more sheltered than many, and never even attended a funeral till I was in my 20s. I certainly never sought that knowledge. So I’m always a little surprised at how clear it now seems once someone has entered on that last part of life’s journey. I believe in fighting for health up to the last moment. But I learned the hard way the price of denial when someone you love is actually dying.

Most people I’ve talked to who have had relatives die go through doubts about whether they did the right thing—having a relative die while driving to a hospital instead of calling an ambulance, calling the paramedics to resuscitate someone who then stayed on a respirator for a month before dying. Sometimes you just don’t know. Can’t know.

Sometimes you can.

Having seen it a few times with cats who just wasted away and then died at home, I’ve also taken a dying cat, my poor black Persian, Ophelia, to the emergency veterinary hospital to suffer through IVs and steroids to extend her life for a few more hours of suffering. I can only plead fear and ignorance. It was like trying to stuff a baby back in the womb when it’s ready to be born.

It was very, very hard to stay by Belladonna on the day she died. Feral that she was, over the last her last eight months, she had begun to let me pet and very gently brush her more although she fiercely resisted being picked up or restrained in any way. Her daughters came, nosed around briefly, and then retreated--shy Betty to hide and more outgoing Tigerlily to nap with the senior male, El Nino. The last few hours I just sat by Bella, though she was beyond seeing or knowing what was around her. As a Buddhist, I was fortunate to be able to chant because that made it easier to be with her and not be distracted. So I chanted, talked to her and petted her gently from time to time. I mixed up a little codeine in cat food gravy and put a few drops in her mouth now and then in hopes of dulling any pain from the convulsions, which did get milder. She seemed more peaceful, and finally was utterly still.

Since then my surviving cats are comforting each other and me, and we’re all learning to live without Bella’s tough but affectionate presence. I’m retreating into DVDs--I saw Trevor Nunn’s 1996, The Twelfth Night a couple of times. It was very good. I cried a lot, although I would probably cry at anything at this point. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows kind of demands it, but even so that dreaming world seems very familiar and safe.

August 12 to August 23, 1977 I read:

Gates of Eden, Morris Dickstein
Note: Couldn’t read all of it. [Sometimes I like literary criticism but clearly not this one. My note continued: “Literary criticism is hard for me to pay attention to”]

None Dare Call It Witchcraft, Gary North
Um, I can’t bring myself to quote my note on this. The most polite word I used was “propaganda.” Suffice it to say I found the author’s agenda intrusive and his attitude willfully ill-informed.

The Investigative Journalist, Folk Heroes of a New Era, James S. Dygert
I think it's been quite awhile since THAT new era faded.

Beyond Control, George Leonard
Note: Not bad. Not great but not bad.

The Living Buddha, Daisaku Ikeda (trans. Burton Watson)
Speaking of Shakyamuni Buddha, I think this was a bio of Gautama.

August 12 to August 23, 2007 I read:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Fanny Price, born to be mild

This past week, I was drawn back to re-read Mansfield Park after watching the beautiful but not-spectacularly-satisfying film adaptation written and directed by Patricia Rozema. The review below dislikes the movie. I liked the movie as a kind of meditation on Mansfield Park, but I missed the “real” heroine—Fanny Price as Austen wrote her.

One controversial aspect of the film was Rozema’s focus (it qualifies as a subplot) on what one character calls, “the people who pay for the party.” She takes pains to point out the ugliness of aristocratic families who derived most of their income from the slave trade and/or slave labor on colonial plantations. I think that added a reasonable dimension to the film and probably came close to expressing Austen’s actual views on slavery (see quote below).

In the DVD director’s comments segment, Rozema uses the word “prig” to refer to Fanny, and her solution is to give meek and mild Fanny a personality transplant. She uses material from Jane Austen’s own life – including impulsively accepting an unwise proposal followed by the next morning’s anguished withdrawal of that acceptance. That happened in real life to Jane Austen, but not to Fanny Price in the book Mansfield Park.

Rozema also has Fanny writing wildly satirical adventure tales, using excerpts from the actual stories a young Jane Austen wrote for her family’s amusement. In the movie Fanny indulges in Elizabeth-Bennet-style teasing of other characters. Fanny Price as Austen created her is missing from the film. Maybe she’s just not movie material, but I missed her.

It’s clear to me after last week's re-reading of Mansfield Park that Fanny Price had what we used to call an inferiority complex, and would nowadays call low self-esteem. Carol Shields’ 1998
salon article uses the words “wimpy, passive and “doormat” to describe poor Fanny, but Shields also gives a very keen perception of why and how she got there and how she manages to keep a light of spirit intact and burning. Raised to age 10 in degradation and poverty, then scooped up and dropped into an aristocratic household where she is daily hammered with demands to be grateful for every crumb that falls her way.

How could Fanny not be shy and reserved? She might not have survived if she was not very, very cautious, living in a snakes’ nest of indifference, neglect and cruelty. The life of the mind and spirit are her only refuge. The suspense in the book concerns Fanny’s survival. She can't go back to a life of grim poverty with her parents and 9 siblings in Portsmouth. This was not a time when women could work outside the home. The best she could hope for would be marriage or a kind of slavery as an attendant to a female relative. Fanny's hopes for happiness seem as impossible to the reader as they do to her throughout the book. (I also noticed as I never had in previous readings how precarious Fanny’s health was in the book and it brought home how close Austen was to her death at 41 when she wrote this book, which was published posthumously.)

In regard to Rozema’s strong (and graphic) statements about how owners of plantation in Antigua financed their lavish lifestyles through the use of slave labor, there is evidence that Austen would have agreed about this evil. The Republic of Pemberly website has a word search feature and I found the word "slave" used 3 times in the book. Once to refer to the actual slave trade, and twice to refer to women's situations.

In regards to the slavery theme, I found a scholarly, but interesting article tracing Jane Austen’s probable views on slavery, based on correspondence with her naval officer brother who hated having to protect the slaving ships, and a list of books and authors she reported loving, including prominent abolitionists.

One of the responsibilities of Commander Francis Austen was to engage in policing activities in the Americas, but he was authorized to intercept only English vessels. He reported on his deep revulsion not merely at the inhumane and heinous treatment of the African slave cargo on the Middle Passage, but also at the entire slave system, which he observed at first hand in other parts of the world as well. Commenting on the "harshness and despotism" of landholders and their managers in the West Indian context he writes that "slavery however it may be modified is still slavery." [footnote omitted] It is clear from this documentation that Francis Austen was, to his credit, truly appalled by the institution of slavery as such and, in this respect, as Southam points out (loc.cit.), he was considerably ahead of his time. In view of the attested close relationship Austen had with her sailor brothers, the elder Francis and the younger Charles, it is highly probable that she shared the former's unequivocal antipathy to the system.


08-03-77 to 08-11-77 I read:

America in the Movies
, Michael Wood

Michael Wood is evidently now teaching at Princeton and still publishing books and articles. Here’s his
review of The Simpsons movie

Inside Story, Brit Hume

High Stakes, Dick Francis

Note: My unfavorite Francis book
’07 note – I forget why I didn’t like this one. I’ve read every book I could find, and studied many of them to see how he achieves that effortless storytelling (I wish I could say I found the secret, but in any event it was time well spent.)

Who is Teddy Villanova?, Thomas Berger
Note: An esoteric cop story is a contradiction in terms

Thomas Berger info.

August 3, 2007 to August 11, 2007 I read:

Mansfield Park
, Jane Austen

Friday, August 03, 2007

Our kitties, ourselves

I have been reading Susun S. Weed’s Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way. There's a lot of strong cancer prevention information here, but I think it’s safe to say that most people read it because of a direct or indirect encounter with breast cancer. In my case I’m looking for more herbal wisdom for my “house feral” cat, Belladonna, who has been living with a different variety of cancer for several months now. Until I got this book I was working from what I could find on the internet with a some help (mainly moral support) from Ragnar Benson’s Survivalist’s Medicine Chest. You don’t have to be out in the wilds away from the rest of humanity to be on your own medically speaking.

I wish there was a magic house call vet I could call who would be supportive through this, and I have the odd whiny moment when I think if I had enough money I could command that kind of care for her. But Belladonna and I had the single worst quasi-medical experience I have ever experienced with the vet I could afford. The main thing this house call vet did was tell me that the bump she had was not an abscess but cancer. I'd just get angry again if I tried to describe his incompetent handling of a cat who was born feral and cautious about even letting me touch her. He traumatized my already very shy cat and he charged more than twice what any vet had ever charged me for a house call. He could see from my apartment that I didn’t have enough money for more extensive treatment, so he needed to extract as much cash as possible while I was still in shock from his diagnosis. (I couldn't afford biopsy or lab tests, but subsequent tumor development confirmed the diagnosis, not that that particular vet is getting asked back.)

Herbs and vitamins have helped Belladonna so far, although I haven't observed any diminishing of the tumor. There is no mythical, magical vet to call, so I try to help her however I can. Seven months since the visit of what my brother called, "the suicide vet," Bella is getting very thin, but her appetite is excellent, she uses the litter box as usual, and she hangs out with her “boyfriend” and daughters. She naps a lot, in the sun if it's available.

The herbal tinctures are 15-50% alcohol, and Bella comes to sit and stare at me significantly when she is ready for more. This may sound awful, but my gut level feeling is that, if asked, Bella would prefer it to the treatment I saw when I helped a friend dose her cat with vet-prescribed “chemo for cats.” That poor kitty struggled against the pill, and was always nauseated, had no appetite and stumbled around like a zombie until the inevitable euthanasia. (The chemo for cats option is never presented as a cure by the way, there are no stats to support it as lengthening the cat's life.)

Bella is the only mother in our kitty household. She and her two kittens, daughters, were trapped in our backyard and spayed with help from friends and the SF SPCA Feral Fix program. Bella is a fierce mom, I saw her face off a raccoon over a food bowl in the week before we trapped her. The raccoon retreated. She was spayed the day after she came to live here, but she’s still a passionate female. She’s the only cat I have who’s “experienced” as Jimi Hendrix would put it. When El Nino, our alpha male cat, got frisky with one of Bella’s daughters (who was immune to his charms) Bella literally ran over and threw herself under him—and continued to do so and every time he was interested.

Now I just stay near her as much as I can and I listen to her wishes which are crystal clear if you observe carefully. Mainly she wants to be left alone, occasionally to be lightly massaged or brushed or have the herbs in tasty cat food.

I am a bit amused reading Weed’s book because I kept thinking of a seriously feminist friend who is allergic to “womanist” things like Motherpeace Tarot. Despite being an unreconstituted hippie (Haight Ashbury, Class of ’68), I don’t go in for healing circles (maybe a little light energy balance work), and you’ll never find me at a sweat lodge or Tantric intensive.

Weed’s book caught my eye because I’d read and liked her book on Menopause Years, the Wise Woman Way. As a side note, I’d heard it held up as one of the rare examples of a self-published author creating sales for her book. Looking more closely at Weed’s schedule, I wouldn't call it a book-sales strategy so much as a calling, and a lifestyle arranged around her passion.

I found the book balanced and useful, without ever being bossy. According to the FAQ on her web site, Weed seems to have enough of a firey side that participants in her intensive workshops are warned in advance not to be intimidated by her yelling. That's an unusual warning to put on a website. Whatever may happen in person, on the pages of the book, the passionate caring comes through, and sometimes that is what’s most sorely needed.

Weed’s invocations to the GrandMothers and their replies to the GrandDaughter deeply moved me at a time of doubt and personal survival struggles in my own life that would have shaken my coping skills with even if Bella were not sick. Her message from the Ancient GrandMothers:

We have no right answers, no rules to follow, no promises of life eternal. Death is certain for every living thing. But there are many ways to prevent and reverse the cancerous changes in your cells….

And we insist that you trust your inner sense of rightness and be willing to act on you own convictions. Walk with truth and beauty, GrandDaughter. There are no wrong answers. There are no wrong paths. Each woman is unique. We are here to support you no matter what confronts you. And to remind you that you can leave a trail of wisdom, a trail of beauty, no matter what path you choose. That is the Wise Woman Way the world ‘round.

I also love the last part of Weed’s dedication/acknowledgment:

...to all the trees whose fiber we use here, I offer my deepest respect and my ecstatic gratitude for all the pleasure and support you have given and continue to give to me.

Ditto to the trees from me on that one.

From July 26 to August 3, 1977 I read:

The Murderers, Emanuel Tanay, M.D., and Lucy Freeman

Future World and
New Voices in Science Fiction, J.W. Campbell Awards,
Note: Tried to read 1st one, couldn’t stand too much of it, forgot to write author and editor’s name down before returning to library.

Unnatural Causes, P.D. James

Surgeon at Work, Clarence J. Schein, M.D.
Note: an infuriatingly imprecise writer

Rainbow’s End, James M. Cain
Note: a 1975-written fairy tale including wicked step mother, oh dear. Well, hell, the man was 83 when he wrote it. To write a readable novel that is even semi up to date at that age deserves applause. It is semi up to date.

Of course now in my late 50s I wonder if I’ll be able to write a semi-up-to-date novel at 83. But the main thing that cause my attention was
JAMES M. CAIN as in Double Indemnity????
Yup. I have no memory of the book. Some internet sources say it's a bank heist book and they don't mention a wicked step mother. The above link with all the book covers describes a 1950's “weight loss” hard-boiled novel, Galatea, which sounds like the Weight Watcher’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ll borrow a little of my 20-something arrogant condescension and look down my nose at that one.

July 26 to August 3, 2007 I read

The Harlequin, Laurell K. Hamilton

Anita Blake seems to be moving toward her roots, or at least to her office! There was more story and less free-floating orgy in this book. It’s seems clear that these books are rushed from her to the publisher to the bestseller list with a minimum of revision, but maybe that’s the price of riding the tiger. There are tigers in the book, as a matter of fact, were-tigers.

Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way, Susun S. Weed