Memento Mori, by Charles Coe

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I heard Charles Coe read from his new collection at the Brattleboro Literary Festival and had to take a copy home with me. Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet, designated “A Boston Literary Light” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The poems he read that day celebrated ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

The poems are those of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

Coe is also a jazz musician and his musicality comes through in every line. His experiences and knowledge of jazz rhythms come through especially in several poems about musicians where he explores the peculiar doubleness of performing: the invitation to the audience to respond and the physical, intensely personal, rapt absorption in the playing itself.

He writes movingly about Boston, by which I mean Boston and its surrounding towns, taking a moment on a stalled subway train, for example, to illuminate the peculiar raggedness of a New England winter and the moments that can lift us into the universal.

Long ago, with other young friends, I visited an older man we knew in New York City who took us on a peculiar tour. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you to,” he said, leading us to one odd and beautiful space after another: corners, pockets, a particular painting. In the same way, Coe’s poems celebrate the secret delights of city life. One such is “The Dance Hall of Porter Square”, inviting us to share a sweet moment among the street people gathered there.

Some poems speak specifically to the experience of being old in this culture, while others to the experience of being black. Many find something unexpected in common sights, such as divining the lineaments of their ancestors in landscape gardeners in “Yardwork”.

Using humor as seasoning, he can pull the rug out from under the reader, turning our laughter to thoughtful frowns as the reversal sinks in. Even “The Saga of the Fish Sticks”, which is even funnier than its title, takes us back to the theme of his title poem and of this collection.

He includes a few prose poems, which use the syntax of prose but have the imagery, compression and music of poetry. An example is “The Night My Sister Danced with a Mouse”, a retelling of a family anecdote taken to a higher plane by the use of an image reimagined in the course of the piece. With humor and minimal but precise details, Coe brings us into this scene to relive it with him, and be warmed by it.

As with some of the best poems, Coe’s work draws our attention to something so small and ordinary, perhaps even ugly, that we would normally overlook it. He invites us into the fullness of the moment, unfolding the lotus to reveal the heart. Here is one such poem quoted in full:

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It is sometimes necessary
to walk along a moonlit riverbank
barefoot, on the sodden strip
where water meets land,
to remind oneself
that something in the mud
remembers the stars.

Have you read poetry that made you see the world with new eyes?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

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I’ve learned to be wary of books whose covers are emblazoned with their bestseller status and whose initial pages are filled with glowing blurbs. Already cautious, I came close to abandoning this book in the course of the first long chapter. I call it a chapter, but the book’s structure is not so ordinary. The first chunk of print would be a better description.

Here we sink into the consciousness of Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man living in a cluttered New York City walkup, who is afraid of dying on a day when nobody sees him. A retired locksmith, he has taken up writing again, a vocation he abandoned sixty years earlier when he fled his village in Poland, just as the Germans rolled in and began gathering up the Jews.

Leo is a sad man, pathetic even, as he deals with physical infirmities and loneliness; his only friend is the peculiar Bruno who lives upstairs. The story Leo starts writing is about the girl named Alma whom he loved back in Poland. The two planned a life together, to start as soon as Leo joined her in New York. However, delayed by the war, by the time he arrives she has given up on him and married someone else.

While the writing is evocative and in places quite lovely, this story and this character did not interest me. Hence, my struggle to keep reading.

But then we branch off into a much more entertaining story about a girl also named Alma, whose ambition is to be able to survive in the wild, as she believes her late father was able to do. She would also like to find someone for her still-grieving mother to love and to persuade her little brother that he is not a lamed vovnik, one of the thirty-six holy men in a given generation, one of whom has the potential to be the Messiah. She tells her story in witty and touching numbered sections, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages.

Despite Leo’s attempts at writing about his village in Poland in the first section, this seems to be the book that Leo eventually began writing. The two stories weave together, and are joined by a third that is apparently that book Leo wrote back in Poland which he thought had been lost, and then by extracts from a couple of other books.

This complicated structure works like a kaleidoscope, the reader’s understanding shifting with each turn. I was impressed with Krauss’s ability first to imagine such a thing and then to hold it together. I enjoyed puzzling out how all the pieces she was juggling might eventually come together.

Although I admired the structure and the writing, I never felt engaged with the story. Leo as a character didn’t interest me. The girl Alma and her brother were more intriguing, but as—I assumed—figments of Leo’s imagination, they seemed too far removed for me to care what happened to them. Also, questions about the reliability of Leo as a narrator held me back from connecting with the story.

I love the way Kraus uses small, sometimes contradictory, but always memorable and true-to-life details to build her characters. Often she’ll follow a high-flown statement with comic deflation. For example, here is Leo, late for a funeral, trying to catch a bus:

I like to think the world wasn’t ready for me, by maybe the truth is that I wasn’t ready for the world. I’ve always arrived too late for my life. I ran to the bus stop. Or rather, hobbled, hiked up trouser legs, did a little skip-scamper-stop-and-pant, hiked up trouser legs, stepped, dragged, stepped, dragged, etcetera.

I’m glad I finished this book. I enjoyed the surprises and the kaleidoscope of reversals. I’d hesitate to recommend it, though, except to those who are willing to forego a story for a dazzling display of writerly prowess.

Do blurbs—the short quotations from other writers or reviewers on a book’s cover or first few pages praising the book—help you select a book to read?

The Melody, by Jim Crace

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Alfred Busi, a famous and beloved musician and singer, is awakened in the night by animals tipping over the garbage bins. His town has honored him by including a statue of him in their Avenue of Fame, and he is to speak at its unveiling the next day. In addition, he is to give a benefit concert in two days.

At “sixty-something”, Busi is comfortable with fame and with the declining quality of his voice. But since the recent death of his wife, he has had trouble sleeping and has let their villa deteriorate.

When he returns from chasing away the animals and righting the bins, he’s viciously attacked—his hands and face deeply bitten and scratched—by what he swears is a small boy, not a feral dog or cat. Other attacks follow, both physical and emotional, in this wrenching account of an aging man, who has been functioning well, suddenly falling off a cliff, as Atul Gawande describes it in Being Mortal.

We don’t discover until near the end the narrator’s identity. He seems to be speaking for the town throughout the long first part of the book. Once identified in the brief second part, he begins voicing individual opinions.

We are in a European town, apparently during the 1930s, a period whose unrest is mirrored in the town’s changes. Developers are buying up property, such as Busi’s aging villa, and clearing out areas that tradition has ceded to the poor and to wild animals. Busi’s account of the wild child who attacked him revives fears of an uncivilised people who according to legend live in the untamed forests. Such feral children are a staple of myth and folklore, sometimes raised by wolves or dogs or bears, but real cases have also been documented.

Our narrator, despite his claims of rationality, still senses “that something other than ourselves persists. Something wilder and more animated but still resembling us.” He goes on to speculate that these others are the ones who will survive “when we come tumbling down, our cities and our towns, as tumble down they must, when our apartments and our boulevards are tenanted by rats and weeds”.

As always with Crace, the language is subtly poetic, so that it is only on rereading that I notice the beauty of the sentences and the way information is conveyed. There is also much quiet humor, not only in the reference to nonexistent books in the acknowledgments, but also in the astute sketches of various characters that reveal their vanities and illusions.

There are other aspects of earlier Crace novels that I recognise. In Harvest, we see the fear of change, the scapegoating of those unlike us, and the issue of displaced people. In Being Dead, we see the unsentimental and dispassionate attention paid to the decomposing bodies that here describes Busi’s injuries and emotional deterioration. We also see a couple’s long and affectionate marriage, similar to Busi’s where the lobby of his house, “was meant only for coats and umbrellas and shoes, but it had witnessed their embraces and reunions a thousand times, and so, for Busi, it had tender memories.”

Books about aging and the changes that come with a longer life are of particular interest to me these days, such as Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I was saddened by much of this book, as we along with Busi discover his new limitations, learn that he is not the man he thought he still was, and have to give up treasured belongings. Yet, I found hope in his openness to what is new. All of the characters here seem like people I know, and their story compelling.

What book about aging has given you comfort or new insight?

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley

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With this novel, Mosley takes us on a different sort of journey. It’s a standalone novel, not part of one of Mosley’s mystery series. Here we are lured into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges.

Ptolemy lives by himself, surrounded by piles of newspapers and boxes, listening simultaneously to classical radio and television news. He relies on his grandnephew Reggie to take him to the bank and grocery, afraid to go out by himself or answer the door to anyone but Reggie ever since a large drug addict named Melinda began terrorising him and stealing his money. Physically frail, he also forgets things that have just happened or been said, finding his mind wandering back to people and incidents from his childhood.

When Reggie is killed (not a spoiler; we learn this in the first few pages), his place is taken by Robyn, a teenager who has been living with Ptolemy’s grandniece, who took Robyn in when her mother died. At first Robyn visits, accompanying him on errands, but appalled by the state of his apartment, she begins cleaning and clearing. Gradually the old man and lonely girl become friends.

Mosley captures the constant threats to an attractive young woman. Even before the stories that have come out through the #MeToo movement, Mosley shows how men assume they have a right to come on to Robyn and become angry when she rejects their advances. The girl carries a knife for protection and isn’t afraid to use it.

But this is Ptolemy’s story. There’s something he still has to do, an unfulfilled mission dating from his childhood. Buoyed by Robyn’s care and companionship, he’s willing to take terrible risks to accomplish it.

The book is a fascinating exercise in deep point of view (POV), also known as free indirect discourse. Most of us learned in school the difference between first- (I), second- (you) and third- (he, she, it) person POV, and omniscient POV.

As I mentioned in the blog post about James Woods’s How Fiction Works, there are variations of third-person POV. Deep POV takes the reader completely into the protagonist’s world, not just being told only what they see, hear, etc., but actually experiencing everything directly, as though you are inside the character’s mind.

Of course, this can get a bit suffocating. The trick is to move between levels, like a camera coming in for a closeup or pulling back for a long shot, without giving the reader whiplash.

Mosley accomplishes this gracefully. Looking at the first scene, we begin with a distant third-person, with the protagonist simply “the old man” answering the phone. On the second page we move in a little closer, getting some of his thoughts: “He was certainly there, on the other end of the line, but who was it? the old man wondered.” Then a few paragraphs later we move fully into his mind, with no “reporting words” as a tag, before moving out again:

Was the voice coming from the radio or the TV? No. It was in his ear. The telephone—

“Who is this?” Ptolemy Grey asked, remembering that he was having a phone conversation.

Mosley continues this dance, effortlessly moving in and out of the old man’s mind, never losing the reader, and making it all seem the most natural thing in the world.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated is the way Mosley handles descriptions of new characters as he introduces them. As I mentioned in a blog post of one of his other books, he often gives a little physical description with some telling detail. Here are a bank teller and a man who runs a gym:

She was a dark-skinned black woman with bronze hair and golden jewelry around her neck and wrists and on at least three fingers.

The man who asked the question was on the short side but he had extraordinarily broad shoulders and muscles that stretched his T-shirt in every direction. His face was light brown and his neck exhibited the strain of a man pulling a heavy weight up by a long rope.

Mosley sometimes combines the description with action.

Big, copper-brown, and buxom Hilda “Niecie” Brown folded the frail old man in a powerful but cushioned embrace.

A high-yellow woman was slumped across the blue sheets of the bed, crying, crying.

“How are you, my friend?” the old, ecru-skinned Middle Easterner asked. He took one of Ptolemy’s big hands in both of his, smiling and nodding as he did so.

Sometimes he lets imagery do much of the work, saying of the woman who would become Ptolemy’s beloved second wife: “Her yellow dress made its own party”.

Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

Do you like novels that immerse you in the protagonist’s world?

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

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When my father was taken ill that last time, he did everything he could to keep from going to the hospital. He tried to hide what was happening, even though as a doctor he knew exactly what it was and what it meant. When discovered, he argued with my mother, trying to keep her from calling for an ambulance, and he fought the EMTs when they arrived. He yelled as he was being carried into the ER of the hospital where he had been chief of staff that he wanted to be left alone to die.

He knew what was going to happen. He was kept alive for three agonising months, undergoing one treatment program after another over his continued protests. His advance medical directive was no protection as his doctors persuaded my mother to override it.

So I thought I knew what I would encounter in this book by Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I knew that a huge percentage of medical costs come in the last few months of a person’s life, the problem being that we aren’t always sure that it actually is the end and not just another stage where recovery may be possible. I had also seen a friend’s family want to deny her treatment because they were concerned about the cost of assisted living and later a nursing home.

And, indeed, Gawande speaks directly to the issues around my father’s last illness.

. . . in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

The book is a surprise, though. Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

New to me was the story of Keren Brown Wilson, one of the originators of the idea of assisted living.

Wilson believed she could create a place where people like Lou Sanders could live with freedom and autonomy no matter how physically limited they became.

The key word in her mind was home. Home is the one place where your own priorities hold sway. At home, you decide how you spend your time, how you share your space, and how you manage your possessions. Away from home, you don’t. This loss of freedom was what people like Lou Sanders and Wilson’s mother, Jessie, dreaded.

Some later adopters of her concepts have not stayed true to her vision, instead returning to the idea that safety is the only thing that matters. Gawande astutely points out that it is usually the children of the elderly making decisions about care, and they are more concerned with the safety of their loved ones than with their possibly risky independence.

I was overjoyed to learn about Bill Thomas’s work as medical director at a nursing home in upstate New York. Throwing out the safe option of keeping the elderly drugged and confined to wheelchairs, he filled their room with parakeets and plants. He added a day care center, so the residents could interact with children, to their mutual benefit. To the surprise of everyone but Thomas, these changes brought immediate improvements in patient outcomes.

The stories of patients and providers, along with Gawande’s stories of his own family’s confrontations with these issues makes this an enormously readable book. The stories bring the science to life.

All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.

I would have liked to see Gawande address the issues related to the people working in these institutions. Yes, the structure of the institution and the principles behind that structure are the first step, but you must have people on the ground to carry them through on a day-to-day basis. As our population ages, care homes of every type will have an even harder time than they do now finding and adequately paying workers. We need to be thinking of how to expand our workforce of compassionate and well-educated people willing to take on an often unpleasant job.

Still, I am thrilled with this book. I hope it opens a much-needed conversation. My father would have loved this book and talked about it with everyone he met.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor

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Elizabeth Taylor was a well-known and much-loved British author, publishing thirteen novels and short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. She has been praised by writers such as Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel; Anne Tyler compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen. However, since her death in 1975, her fame has faded; somehow women, especially those who write about society and the family are less likely to make it into the literary canon. The Telegraph calls her “one of the forgotten geniuses of the [short story] form.”

I came across her name and this title on one of those lists of best books. Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont on a dreary January day, comforting herself with the words “If it’s not nice, I needn’t stay.” Recently widowed, she is coming from a visit with her golf-mad daughter and her family in Scotland. Once in her room “she thought that prisoners must feel as she did now, the first time they are left alone in their cell, first turning to the window, then facing about to stare at the closed door: after that, counting the paces from wall to wall.” But she thinks this “briskly”. After all:

She had always know how to behave. Even as a bride, in strange, alarming conditions in Burma, she had been magnificently calm–when (for instance) she was rowed across floods to her new home; unruffled, finding it more that damp, with a snake wound round the bannister to greet her. She had straightened her back and given herself a goo talking-to, as she had this afternoon on the train.

I love this kind of everyday courage. It is so rarely celebrated. It stands her in good stead as she adjusts to the routines of the somewhat seedy hotel, where long-term residents mingle with “birds of passage”. The residents are a marvelously eccentric bunch, their world narrowed to the hotel and its inhabitants, the predictable dinner menu a source of endless speculation. Mr. Osmond tells racy stories and frowns on Mrs. Burton’s nightly drinks–they cost extra–as does Mrs. Arbuthnot, a rather stern woman crippled with arthritis, but also the person who first spoke to Mrs. Palfrey, including her in the group, a kindness Mrs. Palfrey never forgets.

Before she realises that visitors are a major topic of conversation, Mrs. Palfrey mentions that her nephew Desmond lives in London. When he doesn’t show up, Mrs. Arbuthnot and the others commiserate with her, something she cannot bear. When she encounters a young writer on one of her walks, Ludo, and repays his kindness by inviting him to dinner at the Claremont, she decides to pretend that he is Desmond.

The webs become ever more tangled, but–as with Anne Tyler–Elizabeth Taylor treats her characters with respect. She may invite us to laugh at them sometimes, but never loses sight of their essential goodness and the courage it takes to face a lonely and penurious old age. I found this novel satisfying and unexpectedly moving. I see that it was made into a film in 2005 and hope that I can find a copy.

What other once-famous writers can you recommend?

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan

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O’Nan is one of my favorite writers, for his appreciation of and immersion in his characters, however humdrum or exciting their lives might be. Here, we inhabit Emily Maxwell, an elderly woman living out the tail end of her life in the modest home in a Pittsburgh suburb, the one she’d shared it with her husband Henry until his death. Her friends are also dying off, leaving her with her brash sister-in-law Arlene as her regular companion for breakfast buffets and conversations about the grown children. Alone at home besides her elderly dog, Emily makes an elaborate routine out of her regular chores.

Emily relies on Arlene’s driving which, if shaky, is better than her own. However, all of Emily’s arrangements are thrown into disarray when Arlene faints in a restaurant. Not only does she have to drive Arlene’s car, but she has to navigate the hospital and run errands for Arlene. As her confidence blossoms, she buys a small car and, little by little, begins to expand her world.

I love how O’Nan uses specific details to bring a memory to life and then submerges you in Emily’s reactions and emotions. Here, she is recalling a birthday dinner for her daughter, Margaret, at the country club Henry had introduced her to:

It must have been forty-five years ago, because Margaret was slim as a ballerina in her pinafore, curtseying to everyone for the fun of it. Emily’s own parents were there, a rare occasion, her father gawking in his cheap brown suit, impressed by the high windows and the murals on the ballroom’s ceiling, the white-gloved waiters circulating between tables to deliver iced pats of butter stamped with the club crest. Emily would have arranged for Margaret to have her favorite–yellow cake with chocolate icing–and Henry would have paid by signing his name. Forty-five years.

She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present . If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.

This 2011 novel is a sequel to Wish You Were Here which I read in 2007. I have to admit I don’t remember much of it beyond the characters’ names, the premise of the story and how much I liked it. Liked it? I was buried in it.

I came to this one with some apprehension. Though younger than Emily, I know what it is to live alone once children are grown and gone. I know what it is to have to create a life almost from scratch once work and family fall away, how to find new routines and habits. But once engaged in the story, I thought mostly of my mother, how she sat alone in her townhouse for years until, over her vociferous protests, we persuaded her to move to a comprehensive care facility. She bloomed there, making friends, taking up water-color and quilting.

As Emily blooms here. Although I’m not there myself yet, I believe O’Nan captures the inner life of an elderly woman, moving through her days accompanied by memories of the past, finding ways however unexpected to be in the present and look forward to the future. I enjoyed spending time with Emily. I saw much of myself in her and the potential for more. I especially loved her conversations with her dog, Rufus. She calls him Mr. Feisty, Mr. Excitable, Mr. Pork Pie, and Chubbers McBubbers. They share the same difficulties moving around, taking multiple medications. They remind me of my conversations with my little cat, the Love Bug.

I’m not exactly looking forward to aging, though of course it’s better than the alternative, but Emily’s story helps me prepare myself for times to come, and more patiently appreciate those who are there now.

What books about aging and loneliness have you read?