Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

This nonfiction account of the life and work of Paul Farmer raised a number of questions for me. Paul Farmer is a doctor who could have cashed in his degree from Harvard Medical School for a lucrative practice anywhere in the U.S. Instead he chose to start a clinic in a small town in Haiti, a poor area even for that impoverished country. He started out treating tuberculosis and AIDS but soon realised that he also had to deal with source causes such as poor housing and lack of education. Through the foundation he started, Partners in Health, Farmer and his close associates went on to start programs in countries like Peru and Russia, as well as addressing global health concerns in fora like the World Health Organization.

Tracy Kidder’s prose is as absorbing as any novel. I particularly appreciated the structure of the book. It starts with Kidder’s first meeting with Farmer and chronologically follows from there, with detours as appropriate. Kidder folded in background information on Farmer and his associates just when I as a reader wanted it.

One of the questions that Kidder raised was the inefficiency of Farmer’s methods. We discussed the book in my book club, and one member believed that Farmer’s intensive hands-on approach to health care—Kidder described Farmer taking a whole day hiking out to make a single house call—limited the scope of his achievements. Farmer could have used his growing renown to better purpose by devoting himself to global health concerns or by institutionalizing his work. Several people believed that Farmer’s work would not live on without him. But another person said that Farmer’s practice of dealing with the patient in front of him grounded him and enabled him to accomplish as much as he did.

Kidder described Farmer sacrificing his entire life to his work, which raised questions for me. Being married to a genius or a saint is no picnic. Farmer had a wife and child living in Paris, but we didn’t hear much about them and it sounded as though Farmer rarely saw them. He never seemed to relax either, spending all of his time seeing patients, traveling extensively, and raising funds. Do you have to give up everything else in order to do good work? I’ve tried to make Emerson’s motto “To think is to act” my own, but how far can you, should you take right action?

One member of my book club said that the book made her aware of the luxury and waste in her life. She thought she should sell everything she owned and give it where it might do some good. Of course, it would just be a miniscule drop of what was needed and might accomplish little. However, I did think that an unsung hero of the book was Tom White who devoted his entire fortune to financing Farmer’s ventures. Without White’s money, Farmer would not have gotten very far. And I most admired the way Farmer was undeterred by how the problems he addressed were huge and ultimately unsolvable.

On the other hand, self-sacrifice can be a trap. In The Birds of Paradise —a remarkable novel and one of my favorites—Paul Scott wrote about how seductive it could be to make a burnt offering of yourself. Not only can it feed the illusion of your own importance, but it becomes a way of avoiding other decisions and other responsibilities. However, if Kidder’s account was accurate, then Farmer was not concerned with his own glory, only with the health of the patient in front of him, a single person, not a theory or the public’s acclaim. My friend was right: that is the way to stay grounded.

No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman

A good read. Lippman spins a complex tale featuring her PI, Tess Monaghan, and finishes it off with an ending that satisfies my need for resolution while leaving some threads intriguingly loose—hurry up with that next book!

At the same time, she plays a bit with the conventions of the mystery form. For example, Spenser may have Hawk, but Tess’s sidekick is a truly frightening preppie princess from Greenspring Valley. Hilarious. Also, in this book Lippman foregoes the now almost obligatory physical assault on the PI, substituting a form of attack that is more realistic and—for me—much scarier.

She keeps the pace brisk without sacrificing the characters and sense of place that make her books so interesting. Of course it helps that they are set in Baltimore. The places she talks about are places I frequent and (in most cases) have frequented since the days when the only Lippman I’d heard of was her father.

Why is it so much fun to read a book set in a place I know? A familiar setting helps bring the story to life, especially when (as in this book) the author mentions recognizable local events and people. Certainly it’s easier for me to visualise a scene in a coffeehouse where I’ve spent way too much time or a park where I’ve walked my dog.

Most of all, I find it immensely satisfying to have my own observations reinforced. Lippman, like Anne Tyler, like David Simon, like John Waters (hey, my mom said to say hi to yours), like Barry Levinson, portray the Baltimore I know. You may think some of their characters and stories are off-beat, but I’m telling you, it happens here.

The Bones, by Seth Greenland

Okay, enough about motherhood already. I picked up this book because it had been recommended to me as a mystery. A hundred pages in, with no mystery having appeared, I set it aside. That’s twice as many pages as I usually give a book that doesn’t grab me, but I found parts of it funny and hoped it would get better.

Set in Hollywood, the book is about two men whose paths keep intersecting. Frank Bones is an on-the-verge-of-failing comic who is obsessed with sex, drugs and the Kennedy assassination. Lloyd Melnick is an insecure sitcom writer, obsessed with sex, status and not embarrassing himself.

These unattractive main characters simply did not interest me. I didn’t care what happened to them. And the satire about Hollywood—though occasionally quite funny—was too broad to keep me reading. I’m sure if I knew more about television shows I would have picked up more references, recognised more caricatures of Hollywood celebrities, and found the book more amusing.

I don’t get the whole celebrity thing. Who cares? I remember visiting my sister in L.A. many years ago. She invited her friends over to meet me, but all they could talk about were what celebrities they had seen around town, like kids trading baseball cards. They told me that if I was REALLY lucky, I might catch a glimpse of Jack Lemmon crossing the street. Oh boy.

I have looked at some of the gossip shows on tv, but couldn’t work up much interest. Anyway, knowing too much about actors distracts me when I’m trying to watch their films. There are few actors who can actually make me forget who they are and what other roles they have played. I don’t want to be thinking about their love lives or fashion sense when I’m sitting in the movie theatre.

Even though this book was not to my taste, I’m sure it is to others’ or it wouldn’t have been recommended to me. I’ll donate it to the library or put it on the book exchange shelf at the coffeeshop.

Children of Men, by P.D. James

Now a motion picture, I first read this book when it came out and reread it recently. I’ve always enjoyed mysteries by P.D. James, their texture and intelligence. This book was equally well-written and I certainly found the premise interesting. However, by the end, I was disappointed to find the symbolism a bit heavy-handed.

The details of what a world without children might be like seemed completely believable, particularly the women who pretended dolls were their babies. What is this need to reproduce? I had both my children before I was twenty-five and—if circumstances had been different—could easily have gone on to have or adopt a half dozen more. It wasn’t that I wanted someone to love. Just the opposite, in fact; I was horrified to find that I would have to pay attention to another being every single minute of the day and night. Nor was it the reason some of my pregnant eighth-graders cited: “I want someone who will always love me.” Hoo-wee, I thought, are you in for a surprise!

My reason for having children was that the picture I had of my life—what I wanted my life to be like—included them. Of course, it also included a farm in the mountains, which I don’t have, but there you go. I expected to like my kids. What I didn’t expect was that I would adore them, each of them a miracle.

There are also all kinds of side benefits. Children gave me a great excuse to haul out my favorite picture books, play duck-duck-goose, and ride merry-go-rounds. Of course, the kids also took me on the roller coaster at Hershey Park, which scared the socks off me, but you get the bad with the good. Reliving childhood, a childhood that I could create, delighted me. Luckily for me, my kids not only went along with my crazy games but also were smart enough to ask me questions I couldn’t answer. As grown-ups, they’re pretty great to have around too.

If I hadn’t had children, I probably would be a morose and self-centered drama queen. Kudos to James for being able to imagine a world without children. It chills my bones just to think about it.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

A series of letters from a woman to her husband, parents of a boy responsible for a massacre at his high school—I half-expected this book to be impossible to read. However, the narrator’s voice drew me in. Her ambivalence about becoming a parent seemed believable. The fact that she made a lot more money than her husband, yet had to be the one to stay home with the baby immediately attracted my sympathy. She seemed like someone I might know, one of my friends, although outside of a novel I probably would have gotten tired of her relentless self-centeredness.

I’m pretty gullible, completely snowed by people in books and in life, so I assume a narrator to be reliable unless overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary. Here there’s not enough evidence either way to decide. Was the mother correct that her son was born bad? Or was the father right that the child was normal but twisted by his mother’s distrust, no, dislike? I always blamed children’s behavior on their parents, until I had kids of my own and saw what strong personalities they had, right from day one. So I could believe either proposition about Kevin.

I know parents—my own mother being a prime example—who believe that all small children are out to get their parents and every interaction is a power struggle. Equally, I know two families where the parents—reasonable and pleasant people—have a child who from birth was at war with society in general and the parents in particular. Since the other kids are reasonable and pleasant, I have to absolve the parents of blame. Of course, one sibling’s upbringing can be very different from another’s.

We can never really know what goes on inside another family. That’s one reason I’m grateful for novels like this one that describe lives I haven’t lived. Even Kevin tugged at my sympathies. His explanation to the reporter for the murders (whether phony—as his mother believed—or not) reminded me of the monologue at the beginning of Trainspotting which also made me see the world a little differently. What seemed most real to me in this book was the way that Kevin was the only one who truly understood his mother.

By the way, those two wayward children I mentioned? Both have come around to having a loving relationship with parents and siblings. So, who knows?