Thursday, April 30, 2015

My April Reading ... Part Three

This is the third and last post of my commentary on my reading this month.

The Mill on the Floss (abridged) by George Eliot
Categories: literary fiction

Commentary: Rohan Maitzen's work on George Eliot inspired me to re-read one of the books I remember from my childhood. I dug through my shelves to find a copy of The Mill on the Floss from middle school. I enjoyed revisiting the story far more than I remember liking it as a child. Here is Rohan Maitzen's commentary on the book and on George Eliot. I understood the book so much better after reading it. SPOILERS AHOY!

The story was heartbreaking. My heart bled for Maggie Tulliver for having her intelligence and vivid personality stuck in a box of Victorian values and strictures. Indulged beyond wisdom as a child and buffeted without restraint in her adolescence and young adulthood by life, Maggie's the epitome of the tragic heroine.

And then the ending. Oh, the ending. "The denouement shocks the reader most painfully," protested Henry James. "Nothing has prepared him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it."

Eliot seems to side with Maggie's brother Tom in condemning Maggie's actions with Phillip and with Stephen. Eliot shows no empathy or sympathy in Maggie's sincere attachment to Phillip and then to her attraction to but repudiation of Stephen. Eliot and Tom stand against Maggie in her departure from the strict rules Victorian society has set out for its women. Why is Maggie so undeserving of happiness? The only way for Maggie to redeem her good name is for her to die while coming to Tom's rescue. When looked at this way, the ending of the story is a foregone conclusion—I disagree with Henry James. The minute Maggie deviates from the straight and the narrow, her doom is certain.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: By a male author

Commentary: Recommended by my dad and by Jessica Tripler. I am so impressed with the book. I am so impressed by his bio. Even his notes on sources are impressive—wide-ranging, detailed, numerous. Some people live so fully and pack so much into their days. "I see it now—this world is swiftly passing" by the warrior Karna in the Mahabharata (as quoted in the book).

Gawande writes in his acknowledgments, "I have never been a facile writer. I don't know what those authors who describe the words just flowing out of them are talking about. For me, the words come only slowly and after repeated effort." I have read his New Yorker articles. I have read this book. What in the world is he talking about? His writing has a narrative style that does truly flow.

The book is a sucker punch to the solar plexus. It deals with that subject that makes us the most uncomfortable: dying. We're all going to be doing it, but none of us wants to talk about it. Well, Gawande is talking about it—how impossible the choices are for the elderly to get the medical and physical help they need while maintaining their dignity, their autonomy (to what extent possible), their privacy, and their zest for life.

No culture has a good solution—every positive has a negative. Old age gets treated as a medical problem, because there are always plenty of health issues that crop up the longer you live. However, gerontologists, doctors who specialize in elder medicine, are the ones who concern themselves with whole person care, not just the medical problems portion of it. By just confining care to simply physical and medical matters, the elderly are treated like infants with no thought paid to their lively brains. So gerontologists are essential to our society. However, gerontology is a department absent from many hospitals, the first department to get cut in tight financial situations, and insurances are reluctant to support private practice gerontology.

Gawande certainly has not come up with a magical solution. But he's the only one willing to bring up the topic in a straightforward fashion and lay it out in all its ramifications. That he does it with elegant prose and anecdotes, makes what would otherwise be a dry read into an engrossing read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Categories: parenting, nonfiction
Diversity: Written by a male author

Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2013 Summer Reading post. I'm still reading it.