Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Review:

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink

It was hard to put down this impressive work of journalism that focuses on events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As hurricane season approaches it begs the question: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters in the U.S.? The epilogue to the book, written a few years ago, suggests in some ways we are, but in important ways we are not.

Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order (belatedly) given by the mayor of New Orleans as Katrina approached. Many staff, patients, family members, and even pets sheltered at the hospitals (lesson the first: evacuate before the storm hits), including Memorial. As the title indicates, it would be five days before all were evacuated. After power loss, the generators eventually failed as they were in the basement, where the water levels rose once the levees broke. Though they had food and bottled water, the hospital went without running water, air conditioning, working plumbing, and the power needed to run vital medical equipment.

Evacuation aid via helicopters and boats was erratic or turned away by staff at points. Communication at all levels was unreliable; rumors swarmed, including that New Orleans was under martial law and looting and violence were everywhere. The staff went without much sleep as they continued to care for patients. The bad decision was made to leave the sickest patients, including those with DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, last for evacuation, with the exception of neonates. Healthier patients (though some still critical) left first. Family members were encouraged and even pressured to leave their loved ones, assured the patients would be cared for.

Soon after the disaster, there was a reckoning. Or, I should say, an attempt at a reckoning. Troubled reports of irresponsible and ethically questionable decisions being made at hospitals and nursing homes arose, including euthanasia at Memorial. 40-some patients had died there, and about half were later found to have high levels of morphine as well as Versed, a sedative, in their systems. Were they euthanized, and by whom?

In addition to covering events at the hospital as reported by those who were there, Fink covers the development of the legal case against a particular doctor and two nurses accused of second degree homicide. Reading about what happened at the hospital, the good and, mostly, the bad, is heartrending and horrifying, impossible to look away from, like a car accident. Learning what does and does not happen afterwards infuriated me; my sympathies were with those who’d lost loved ones, who don’t quite have closure. I sympathized also with nurses so traumatized by those five days that they could no longer practice.

Fink contextualizes Katrina as well as the ethics of decisions made. She profiles key players, letting their own words speak for them. I don’t pretend to read much non-fiction, but it seems to me her work is exceptionally well researched, every effort made to fact-check and communicate with those involved. The book evolved from a piece she did for ProPublica and the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer. Regardless, I’m sure there’s been a range of reactions. If you google the topic, you’ll find a website by/for the doctor arrested who continues to deny wrongdoing, with a link to another site that proclaims “the truth” of what happened. I didn’t bother clicking.

Mostly I think about the contrasting example of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, who lost fewer patients despite having more, with additional patients delivered to them. I think of proposed (and adopted) legislation or protocols that would shield physicians from legal ramifications of unethical decisions made during a disaster. I think of the following quote, with which I agree:

 

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

 

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Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Review:

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can’t let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It’s a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

I’m surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she’s lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She’s bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn’t been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he’s just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he’s doing and why. He doesn’t seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he’s another character I found I couldn’t care about.

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He’s been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

I won’t spoil how the three characters’ stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn’t enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Review:

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I’ve waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author’s fault or mine. It’s silly to assign blame when one doesn’t like a book; I suppose this one just wasn’t for me, and I wish every book was.

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much “me.” The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator–I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to–borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious “accident.” The game also embodies what I understand to be the book’s major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn’t until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean’s “accident,” though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery…except it’s not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you’re even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don’t have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn’t. A book can be about roads we do and don’t take, how our choices don’t always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Deliverance, by James Dickey

Review:

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for “that scene,” the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a “hillbilly.” The scene is a bit different in the book–there’s no “Squeal like a pig!” moment–but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to “develop” a female character, that it’s rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe).

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey’s prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I’ve read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it’s about using and relying on one’s physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine “man’s man” of the foursome. He’s what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There’s Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who’s the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis’s best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it’s up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won’t be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters’ actions and attitudes from the author’s. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn’t want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn’t appreciated her enough. Drew’s widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men’s masculinity.

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I’ve mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library’s list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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Deliverance, by James Dickey