Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Age of Hope

The Age of Hope
The Age of Hope by David Bergen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, once again, I've read a book that I love! I'm either on a quite a streak of reading only good books, or I've completely lost any standard! (Maybe a little from column A and a little from column B)

But I loved The Age of Hope. I've been trying to recall the last time I read a novel written my a man who explored the emotional landscape of a woman as thoroughly as David Bergen has in this novel and I cannot come up anything. Not that there aren't any, I admittedly have a poor memory.

Hope is a woman born in 1930, in a small town near Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada. So, this is a novel about my mother (who was born in 1929 in Quebec) and her generation. Hope marries Roy, a man driven by ambition: with his expanding car dealerships he easily provides for his growing family through the nineteen-seventies. Hope and Roy Koop and their four kids live well and Hope's family is as happy as they can be.

Except for Hope.

Mr. Bergen offers many reasons why Hope is unhappy in her humdrum life: for one thing, she is nothing like her recently emancipated girlfriend, a woman who gets caught up in the wild seventies movements, experimenting with pop psychology, drugs, and sex.

Although The Age of Hope focuses exclusively on Hope's life, Hope doesn't have lots of exciting experiences. She just goes along and lives her life; she cares for her family, whom she usually loves, but sometimes hates, and at other times cannot fathom why she should care about them.

Hope gets depressed when she learns that she is pregnant with her fourth child and she ends up receiving electro-shock therapy for her depression. One result of the shocks, besides bringing her back to an even keel psychologically, is that she can no longer bring herself to cry about anything.

Don't get me wrong, lots of things happen in this narrative: women get abortions, people lie, they cheat on their spouses during wife-swapping key parties, they run away from their families... but none of these things happen to Hope.

Yet, I offer a couple reasons as to why I love this novel: the first is that David Bergen (and his editors) let the characters shrug. A lot! I love it! As a writer, I love the shrug, it so easily and realistically conveys so many indeterminate emotions.

The other reason I love The Age of Hope is that, like a Seinfeld episode, nothing happens to Hope, yet she has an interesting life and a life well worth reading about. The reason is that Mr Bergen lets her breathe. He takes the time needed to document life in rural Manitoba and the rest of the world, to examine the sixties, seventies, and eighties eras, and to explore Hope's inner life as she goes from a nursing student to an elderly woman.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who has never read David Bergen. And when you're done reading this one, read The Time in Between.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

November is Lung Cancer and Pancreatic Cancer Month

The fact that the Canadian Cancer Society recognizes these two types of cancer in November means a great deal to me, since my uncle Ronald died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago, and my father died of lung cancer nine years ago.

A bit about each of them:
My uncle Ronald loved music and devoted most of his life to conducting a church choir. I think he became interested in music when he learned as a child that he could sing anything he had to say with ease, instead of painfully stuttering his way through a sentence. late in life he took conducting classes to better apply his craft, and music meant the world to him. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he never had the good singers in town. Our hometown was a small place, yet there were two choirs for one church. Most of the good singers went with the better choir, since that one had a reputation for being a better choir. Although competition was fierce in that choir, I never once heard that my uncle ever turned away anyone who was interested in singing in his choir. Many of the singers were older ladies, well past their prime singing voices, if they ever had a singing voice to begin with, yet he graciously and gratefully accepted and welcomed them into his choir.

Over twenty years, we all sang at one time or another in uncle Ronald's choir. It was a family affair: My dad sang, me and my brother also sang, two of my uncles played music and sang, along with three of my cousins.

Then uncle Ronald got sick. The doctors discovered it was pancreatic cancer, and he wasted away for months, until God called him to help conduct that big choir in the sky.

My dad:
Family lore claims that my dad was born with a shotgun in one hand and a fishing rod in the other. He was a born sportsman. Through all his admitted faults, he was also blessed with having the patience of a saint. Given who he was married to (my mother was not known as a patient person) my dad needed all the Divine assistance he could get.

The man hunted and fished his entire life. Later on, I taught him to play golf. It immediately appealed to his competitive nature and he played for many years. He hated anything (and everything) from Montreal, I think just because he hated big cities. He loved to hate the Montreal Canadians every Saturday night. I think he also hated the Expos as much as he disliked the Canadians.

Be that as it may, I got a phone call one day from my mom. My dad was on the other line, as usual. They tended to have these endearing conversations between the two of them as I was forced to listen in... My mom announced that Dad had lung cancer. Lifelong smokers the both of them, I can't say I was shocked by the news. Dance with the Devil long enough, he'll come after you...

Dad refused any treatment. He wasn't convinced that they would do any good and he chose quality over quantity of life. He lived for almost five years after the initial diagnosis. From the distance of a whole province away, the only outward change I noticed was that he had shorter breath and maybe he drank a bit more whiskey. Personally, I would probably have been drunk until the Reaper came a knocking.

One night he and my mom went out to play cards at their best friends' place. They came back home a couple of hours later and my dad had trouble climbing the stairs to their second floor apartment. My mom called the ambulance and they took him to emergency. Two days later, he died in ER, still waiting for a room. Surprisingly, this was the only time he went to the hospital for lung cancer issues.

So, that's the human face of pancreatic and lung cancer, for me. Thank you for reading.

~ JT ~

Monday, November 05, 2012

Review: The Time Keeper

The Time Keeper
The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom. He is an author that I will not only move up on my to-be-read pile when one of his new books comes out, I will stop reading whatever I'm currently reading to start his!

And once again Mr. Albom does not disappoint his fans. The Time Keeper is a philosophical/theological themed novel about temporality. Speaking as a Heideggerian (Being and Time, Time and Being) and as someone who has not worn a watch in many, many, many years, I usually dismiss most authors' awkward and feeble attempts to grapple with this subject. But I was curious to find out Mitch Albom's spin on it.

In The Time Keeper, we are presented with three simultaneous and eventually intertwining stories about temporality: a teen girl decides she has too much of it and wants to end her life as soon as possible; a rich man (the fourteenth richest in the world, we are told) doesn't have enough time left because he is dying; and Dor - who first lived around the time of the building of the great tower of Babel - the first man to measure time.

Each of these characters has much to learn about themselves and about their relationship to time. For those of you too busy to read this short novel, the moral that Mr. Albom imparts is that we have all the time we need to lead our lives, God neither apportions too much of it nor too little.

I couldn't have put it any better. And neither could Heidegger.

If you've enjoyed Mitch Albom's previous works, you'll definitely enjoy this one, too. If you've never read Mitch Albom, The Time Keeper is as good an introduction to this great author as any of his other books.

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Saturday, November 03, 2012

Review: Then Again

Then Again
Then Again by Diane Keaton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Diane Keaton's autobiography, Then Again. It turns out that she is exactly what she's appeared to be since coming on the scene as Woody Allen's la-de-da girl, Annie Hall - an insecure woman trying to find herself, someone who's not a great actress but who makes the most out of every situation. Not that it didn't take her a while to come to terms with that...

I also enjoyed this writing project: to try to write two biographies in one; her own, as the Grammy-winning star of Annie Hall, and her mother's life story, a 1940s-50s homemaker and budding memoirist/artist. I think she succeeded in doing what she set out to do. Alzheimer's stories are always heart-breaking, so she had the emotional impact of that subject matter to fall back on. And, luckily for Ms. Keaton, she had her mother's eighty-five journals for extra material. Many biography writers do not have that kind of material at their disposal. She used it sparingly (I wanted to read so much more of Dorothy's journals than what Ms Keaton included in her book), and she supplied those journal entries with her own memories of the events.

Ms. Keaton also gives the reader (at least, this reader) just enough behind the scenes accounts of her relationships with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino. Full disclosure, the main reason I read this non-fiction book is because Annie Hall is one of my favorite movies of all time, I loved Reds, and I really enjoy The Godfather trilogy.

By reading Then Again I learned more about Diane Keaton the actress than I ever knew before, I learned more about her roles as a mother and a daughter, and I got a few peeks at the private life of a major Hollywood star.

I found the memoir a satisfying read, and enjoyed the creativity either Ms. Keaton or Random House used in putting the book together. Well done.

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