Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Tokens and Reviews - from Knitting to Nemesis

I got these books - the Knitting and Crochet one was in the bargain bin, but Nemesis was full whack - with my the last of my book tokens which I won in the Terrible Typos competition in the Irish Times a few months back. The Knitting and Crochet book has some great patterns and I look forward to idling away the dark winter evenings with some cool and colourful projects which will be shared and blogged about in due course.

Nemesis was a nice treat as I rarely buy new hardback novels, preferring to wait for the paperback or go to the library. The cheapskate in me rails against such extravagance, but I'm always prepared to make an exception and Philip Roth is one of my favourite authors, in the same league as Updike, Ford and Franzen in my humble opinion. I read Portnoy's Complaint back in the '70s for the salaciousness of it being a widely-banned book, but since then I've returned for the literary merit and not the smut!

Nemesis is a deceptive book. It's written in an understated narrative style, with a structured formality - the story is told by a student of the protagonist, Bucky Cantor, a phys ed teacher who worked as a playground director during the summer of 1944 when polio ravaged Newark and beyond in a relentless epidemic.

Bucky is a young man old before his time after being dealt a number of short straws in life - his mother died giving birth to him, his father was a jailbird and he grew up never knowing parents but with loving grandparents in the Jewish Weequahic suburb of Newark. He is in love with a girl Marcia, from a wealthy family, who's also a teacher and spending the summer working in a summer camp in the Poconos mountains, Indian Hill. The contrast between the two locations couldn't be starker - the urban one full of disease, fear and helplessness, and the rural idyll with clean air, sure to keep polio at bay. The reality is very different.

The story focuses on Bucky's struggles with his demons. Marcia urges him to join her in the  summer camp and escape the city with all its danger. He is torn between going as he feels honour-bound to staying with the playground kids, yet he succumbs to the lure of the lovely Marcia.

Soon after he leaves, the playground closes when the epidemic gets out of control, and he realises he wouldn't have had to resign and incur the wrath of his boss who castigates him as a coward, had he stayed on a few more days.

Developments at Indian Hill take a sinister but predictable turn, and Bucky's guilt comes back to haunt him. The relationship with Marcia is intense and she is an uncomplicated sincere woman while Bucky is decent and honest but has low self-esteem which makes him feel unworthy of her love.

The ending was unexpected but understandable when the character of Bucky was considered, and it is very poignant and sad to see how a life can be shaped by events completely outside someone's control, and when one's sense of responsibility can be so extreme as to be hubristic, as I think it was in this case - Bucky blames himself for everything and when logic dictates otherwise he doesn't want to know.

I loved the way Roth writes; he has a lyrical descriptive style which draws the reader to the time and place, and is a great analyst of the human spirit and condition. In recent years I've read Exit Ghost and The Human Stain and other Zuckerman novels, and while this was not a Zuckerman book it was riveting in its simplicity and beauty. It was more like a novella than a full-length novel as it was such a page-turner, despite its 269 pages.

The topic of polio is an emotive one, and it has touched our family - my mother's father had polio as a child in the 1880s and it shaped his life - he became a master tailor as it was a skill for which he didn't need two good legs, instead of the farm labourer which would have been his destiny. Yet this was the first novel I'd read on the subject.

I've read The Cutter Incident which looked at the epidemics of the 1950s in the USA when a batch of polio vaccine was tainted with live virus that infected numerous children, killing some. Patrick Cockburn's The Broken Boy looks at a personal journey through polio in the Irish epidemic of the 50s and how it ravaged Cork in particular. These are all worth reading as much for social commentary of the day as well as human interest. Most of us will never experience the horrors of polio and the fear of the unknown legacy - iron lungs and calipers defined it for so many, and I am old enough to remember schoolmates who had polio and were permanently affected.

The tragedy is now the number of post-polio syndrome victims who are affected, 50 or more years after their original infection, with a debilitating malaise.

To all anti-vaccine campaigners out there, this book should be required reading.


Rudee said...

The herd mentality of vaccination is not without its problems. These are people who go without vaccinating themselves or their children and depend on the rest of us who do to prevent outbreaks. There have been deadly outbreaks of whooping cough (pertussis) here in the states and children are dying because their parents elected not to vaccinate. It's a shame. Given the return of disease like this, it's only a matter of time before we see a resurgence of many preventable diseases.

Autism and a vaccine cause has been debunked for the garbage research that it was. Interestingly, a new link has been found and is being researched: autism of a child conceived within 1 year of the preceding child indicating nutritional deficiencies in the mother. My son was 9 months old when I conceived the child I bore who has autism. Not for one minute did I think her disorder was due to vaccine. She's had them all. Now I'm really thankful for that.

Rudee said...

Of course, I do have one caveat to add to my diatribe on vaccination and that's the contaminated Rhogam given to women who then became ill with hepatitis c. I forgot that occurred primarily in Ireland. More research needs to go into our vaccines for safety reasons before we give them to humans.

Ann said...

Sounds like a wonderful read Catherine. I will be on the look out for this book when it appears in paperback. Looking forward to seeing more of your wonderful creations. I don't know where you find the time. I am scrambling to get a few matinee coats done. You put me to shame.

Lily said...

Very interesting post Catherine. Now you have me off to read Nemesis, thanks for the recommendation.

Catherine said...

Thanks for the comments! Hope you all get to read this book - let me know what you think!

Rudee - I agree, vaccines have had their problems as in the Cutter batch and the tainted 3-in-1 in Ireland in the 60s and a BCG batch that was either too strong or weak years ago - but the benefits of immunisation far outweigh the risks - the fact we have never seen most of the diseases they prevent is a testament to their success - diphtheria made a comeback in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union with their mandatory public health vaccinations - not that I'm advocating a return! - but it shows their effect. Wakefield (the discredited/struck-off doctor whose "research" on 12 children purported to link MMR to Autism) did huge damage and it is reflected in the lack of herd immunity in many countries and an upsurge in cases of fatal measles. I've seen the effects of the diseases in countries without mass vaccination until Unicef's EPI came in (extended programme of immunisation). Tetanus killed thousands of newborns when I was in Bangladesh in the late 70s due to the cowdung placed on the umbilical stump for haemostasis, a cultural norm, until maternal Tetanus vaccine was given. Result - no more neonatal tetanus deaths. So I have little patience with anti-vaccine parents - and we have the Measles and Mumps parties here where parents invite kids with the diseases to visit their kids to give them "natural immunity thru' exposure". Irresponsible or what? I rest my case! (sorry for the rant!)Hep C was horrific here from the contaminated Anti-D. Badly handled by the govt. of the day. Now well controlled and compensation paid is adequate.

Ann - a great read as are the other books I mentioned - you'd enjoy the local flavour of The Broken Boy - Patrick Cockburn grew up in Youghal. Happy Knitting! Send the photos on your blog!

Lily - it was a good read and I hope you enjoy it - have just seen the list for Jan and Feb bbc! Challenging. Am reading odd book now -Addition about OCD girl in Australia.


~*~ saskia ~*~ said...

Hi Catherine, leuk dat je meedoet met mijn giveaway! I threw the Catherine notes in the big hat, fingers crossed for you.
Have a happy start to the new week! xx