Friday, December 16

Hell within

 











The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.   

Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl. 

Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.

He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.” 

Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."  

Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.” 

One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.”  He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.

Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.” 

But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil. 

Friday, December 2

Orphans

  











The Koran  prioritizes care for orphans: “And give to the orphans their property, and do not substitute worthless (things) for (their) good (ones), and do not devour their property (as an addition) to your own property; this is surely a great crime.”   

But children are helpless against greed, explains Fatimah Asghar in When We Were Sisters. After three girls lose their parents – the mother to illness, the father murdered – a maternal uncle takes control, not because of love or duty but rather he covets the government social security checks issued to each month.

He prohibits the girls from meeting his wife and two sons and instead sets them up in a small, filthy room in an apartment building that he owns, assigning equally vulnerable neighbors to provide day-to-day care. That daughters are less valued than sons is apparent from the start, and the girls sometimes maintain they are brothers or mother-sisters.

The uncle issues strict rules and, not wanting to be bothered by incidentals, teaches them how to forge his name for school paperwork. They attend school and can pursue activities as long as they are free. A neighbor reads the Koran with them, and when money runs low, the girls literally take to the street near the neighborhood mosque, begging for grocery money as orphans. The uncle is furious, yet also realizes that members of the mosque will gladly donate money to support the orphans. He uses those donations and the hundreds in Social Security payments to provide home renovations and comforts for his own family.   

The story is told from the point of view of the youngest, Kausar, who idolizes her two sisters, literally referring to them as gods. In turn, they regard her as useless and annoying. The young protagonist relays life disappointments, her serial abandonment and grief in a matter-of-fact way.

Early on, a Pakistani couple, undocumented and poor, selflessly love and care for the girls. The uncle's discovery that the girls sleep with the couple at night when frightened triggers a fight. The uncle scolds, “They’re not your kids,” and their beloved Meemoo retorts, “So whose kids are they?” Wary that the man's defiance might disrupt his schemes, the uncle accuses the couple of inappropriate behavior and kicks them out of their home. He then interrogates the girls about sex and relies on unstable young women to watch over the sisters.    

Once the oldest girl reaches puberty, the uncle stops arranging for caregivers, mostly leaves the sisters alone. The girls lie to classmates about home life, and teachers and neighbors fail to notice three girls struggling on their own, often hungry and unkempt. The oldest manages to hold the truncated family together, and the youngest admits, “I need an adult. And I don’t know how to get one.”    

On a lifelong search for a mother figure, Kausar contents herself with make believe: “We’re mothered by everything because we know how to look for the mothering, because we know a mother might leave us and we’ll need another mother to step in an take its place.”  With poignant and exquisite detail, the child describes relishing the warmth of the sun, shade from the tree, the smell of cookies, the street signs that guide when it’s safe to walk, a cloud of dust, or grass not yet trampled - all as mother's love.  Her constant anticipation distances her from others: “What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother” and “All the mothers in the world reach out to the motherless.” A simple touch from siblings is overwhelming, and she thinks, “you’re held, you’re held, you’re held.”  

At one point, the youngest asks whether a sister still a sister when a mother dies? Kausar increasingly struggles to communicate fears, dreams and identity issues with sisters who are not much older than her. Each daughter dreams of escape, a better life, but the youngest has far less experience with love, motivation, trust – with basic routines and normality. She readily accepts chaos and cruelty from her interactions. At one point, she notes that Allah asks us to make language: “We assumed we meant the same thing when we spoke, because we said the same words. But. We were wrong. We were so wrong.”

Oddly enough, the youngest daughter gets along better with the uncle than her sisters do, and at one point, he urges Kausar to reconcile with a friend after an argument. “Don’t let the small things become the big things,” and she remembers that advice years later at his funeral. 

But a child who grows up without a mother can’t be depended on to understand what is small or big, right or wrong. 

Monday, November 21

Economic priority










Climate change is a major business risk, one that should be economic priority rather than afterthought.

The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Kiplinger’s and other business publications increasingly raise alarms. For example, Morningstar features a section on sustainable investing, with a recent headline noting “Can’t Fix Tomorrow with Yesterday’s Tools.”  Investopedia points out how the US Securities and Exchange Commission, since 2010, has required companies to disclose to shareholders any climate issues that could have impact on business operations.   

The costs of ignoring climate change are immense.  

● Businesses and consumers anticipate higher prices for energy along with goods and services.  

● Insurance costs are rising, and major companies are dropping coverage for properties in flood-prone regions like Florida, reports the Insurance Journal. 

● Retirees, in a notable shift, are examining flood-risk maps and avoiding properties in Florida and other areas prone to extreme weather, reports the New York Times. 

● Higher temperatures and water scarcity are reducing crop yields and increasing weeds, pests and fungi. 

● The medical research community points to climate change, as the “greatest threat” to global public health, according to a joint statement in 2021 by a group of medical journals, reports Deloitte Insights. Climate change is worsening infectious diseases as well as respiratory, neurological and gastrointestinal problems – and increasing costs. 

● Warning waters are prompting ocean species to shift to cooler waters and even causing some populations to crash.  

The list goes on. Severe weather events are occurring more frequently and communities must invest in disaster planning. 

Stopping climate change requires shifts in individual behavior, and a Morningstar interview described the Take the Jump campaign, urging people to partake in “Less stuff and more joy” with six simple actions that anyone can try:   

● Limiting flying and consider taking no more than a flight every three years.

● Reduce meat and dairy in diets

● Purchase no more than three new items of clothing each year. 

● Control clutter and stop purchasing unnecessary goods – and hold on to possessions longer and try repairing before disposal.

● Shift energy sources and providers and rely on more renewables. 

● Become an active rather than passive investor. Examine pension investments and urge managers to reconsider investing in companies that undermine quality of life. And if you own stocks, take stands by voting on shareholder resolutions.  The Climate Action 100+ flagged 14 proposals during the 2021 proxy season – and six received majority approval. The organization provides updates on proposals and the voting season, which starts again in earnest next year.  

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Thursday, November 10

Battling the grotesque





















Most readers quickly and rightly reject novels that detail abuse of animals, children or other vulnerable populations. Reading about systemic poverty and lack of opportunity – the slow neglect and breakdown of human spirit – should be equally disturbing. The Rabbit Hutch alludes to first while detailing the humiliations and weariness associated with the second. 
The debut novel by Tess Gunty explores how individuals slide into disturbing behaviors, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and other people. The setting is a dilapidated apartment building known as the Rabbit Hutch in Vacca Vale, a dying Indiana industrial town. Most occupants resent and avoid their neighbors. These include a quiet middle-aged woman who moderates comments for online obituaries and four young adults recently aged out of the foster-care system. 

The characters are flawed, insecure in this desolate environment. A visitor from Hollywood, the depressed son of a child movie star, suggests that other people are "dangerous because they are contagions. They infect you with or without your consent; they lure you onto paths you wouldn't have chosen.... if you collide with someone, you must be prepared to reside inside their psychology indefinitely, and this is the burden of a lifetime." These characters, struggling to communicate and launch meaningful relationships, do collide rather than connect. 

The discomfort over an inability to find companionship is not limited to dying communities, and the visitor from Hollywood concedes that his own conversations with others are a mess as "he doesn't know how to have clean ones anymore." While in Vacca Vale, he wanders into a church and agrees after a priest asks if he is there for a confession. After describing his fears and worst behaviors, the man questions the priest’s assessment. The priest admits to weariness and advises the confession might be his last. Unleashing regret, the man mourns “rot at the center of the Catholic Church,” Rather than effect change, the priest felt infected. “Abuse should be condemned. Birth control should be encouraged…. These are easy things, obvious things, unavoidably right and good, and yet I’ve come to believe that they’re never going to happen within this decaying institution. I’m sick of following orders, meekly playing the game, waiting for the rules to change themselves.” 

His complaints target one institution, yet capture the dilemma of anyone trapped within systems, playing by questionable rules while ignoring massive, obvious problems. The priest counsels the visitor that no person can be all good or all bad. “You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else. Those behaviors can become patterns, or instincts, and some are better than others. But as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.” 

Progress depends on breaking old patterns, avoiding old mistakes. 
Blandine
St. Blandine

The apartment is the first for the foster children, three young men and a woman, Tiffany. She is intelligent, well-read, but she drops out of high school after a misguided affair. Despite or maybe because of her own history of hurt and neglect, she continues to study and learn, touting a library copy of She-Mystics: An Anthology and adopting the name of Blandine, a slave girl martyred for her Christian beliefs in the 2nd century. The teenager stands out as odd, fascinated less by religion and more by ethics, philosophy, and ancient saints who practiced self-abuse to achieve immortality and godliness. 

With a few exceptions, Blandine is wary of new relationships – "My whole life has educated me against investments whose rewards depend on the benevolence of others." And so she regards Hildegard, a mystic from the 12th century, as her only true friend, relying on quotes for guidance: “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong” and “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world – everything is hidden in you.”  

St. Hildegard von Bingen
















Blandine ponders how the mystics, despite their gender and solitude, left their mark on history and human thought. And while she does not believe in God and regards the mystics as selfish and individualistic, she wonders how a modern mystic might challenge climate change, systemic injustice, the “plundering growth imperative,” and other obvious challenges in Vacca Vale. 

Ambition mixes with fear, and Blandine admits to often being “attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies.” She denies herself a high school scholarship, the chance to attend college, appropriate roommates all while searching for virtue in a community seeping with inequality, corruption, insecurity and depression. Reflecting on her own life, she concedes that "It all looks so - so grotesque." She longs to transform her community but lacks tools to intercede. 

Another neighbor – Joan, the editor of online obituaries – is fearful and lonely, witnessing the pain of Vacca Vale on a more personal scale. One day while walking, she observing the impulsive ease of strangers demonstrating care for a person who collapses on the street. She understands that “human tenderness was not to be mocked. It was the last real thing.” 

The disjointed plot is relayed with exquisite sentences. The theme is strong – people can transform, breaking habits and moving the many obstacles they have placed in their own way by practicing kindness. A brief and awkward encounter between Joan and Blandine in the book’s earliest pages isn't the last. The two women discover a shred of connection – thank to persistence, hope, empathy – hundreds of pages later.

Monday, October 24

Abandoned

 












The Foundling, set in 1927 at a state institution in Central Pennsylvania, is modeled after the real Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age, that operated between 1920 and 1998. The institution's purpose evolved over the decades, but the goal during the early years was eugenics – to prevent troubled and “feeble-minded” women from reproducing.

Soon after opening, Laurelton had a waiting list to care for women deemed insane by husbands or abandoned by families, women who had large numbers of children by multiple men, as well as women who relied on prostitution or careers deemed as unsuitable. The state Public Charities Association supervised Laurelton along with prisons, orphanages and other facilities that cared for the “dependent classes,” explains a brief history in the West End Quarterly. 

“Throughout the early twentieth century, researchers, social reformers, and politicians cast a wide net for classifying people as ‘feebleminded,’” explains Micalee Sullivan. “The term lacked clear standards or definitions of who constituted ‘feeble-minded’ in the reports of the government agencies, as well as the report of directors at the Laurelton State Village. During the planning stages of the institution, an article described an institution that would ‘provide several groups embraced under the terms "idiotic," "imbecile," or "feeble-minded.'" 

Sullivan argues the institution’s history is complex, providing care and vocational training for women while also restricting freedoms. 

Pennsylvania Heritage praises Laurelton’s first superintendent, Mary Moore Wolfe: “Wolfe rejected the established medical traditions of the early 20th century that argued ‘mental deficiencies’ caused people to commit crimes and warranted locking them up forever. She believed ‘the problem of mental deficiency is not primarily a medical problem’ but instead was ‘an educational, and to a lesser degree, a sociological problem.’ Determined to make Laurelton Village a place of rehabilitation and not permanent segregation, Wolfe developed academic, vocational and moral training programs for the women living there.”

Laurelton sewing class, 1920s

The novel is more critical about such institutions and the power of those who profit from society’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Mary Engle feels fortunate to land a job as a secretary at the facility lauded as “progressive,” run by elegant Dr. Agnes Vogel, psychiatrist and one-time suffragist. Mary, raised in a Catholic orphanage after her mother’s death, squashes memories of seeking favors while enduring sexual abuse by an uncle during occasional visits. The orphan, learning more about the case histories of inmates, could only muse, “There by the grace of God …”  

The facility, not religious, is touted as “modern” – emphasizing rigid controls, long hours of hard work as ground crews, factory workers, dairy maids or housekeepers. Unlike Laurelton, the fictional Nettleton is described as offering no education or treatment. For favored staff members, there is luxury housing and meals, as well as alcohol purchased under the guise of “medicinal treatments” during the era of Prohibition. Local and state authorities pay little notice to the facility that boasts of self-reliance, requiring no tax dollars, while offering local jobs and revenue for local businesses.

Mary – a skilled professional – works tirelessly for Dr. Vogel, and the older woman eventually trusts her like a daughter, a closeness that creates distance for the secretary with other staff members and entangles her in corrupt activities including transport and misuse of alcohol. Mary soon detects physical abuse, harsh punishments and insults, but trusts that Dr. Vogel acts in the best interests of inmates. Skepticism grows as she meets more people her age, including a nurse in the facility, a journalist who is curious about rumors of cruelty, and eventually an inmate and one-time friend who grew up in the same orphanage where Mary was raised. The secretary struggles to act on her empathy for Lillian, the inmate, understanding that admission to a previous relationship with an inmate would result in termination of employment. Lillian, like many other inmates, is hardly feeble-minded, but the records do not reflect her education and capabilities.  

For weeks, Mary, torn over job security and her admiration for Vogel, avoids Lillian and rationalizes that that the other woman resists, simply not understanding the difference between right and wrong. As an orphan herself, Mary fears imperfection in herself and others, failing to understand that any attempt to assess others as feeble-minded or flawed reflects arrogance.  

Mary begins dating Jake, a journalist who questions eugenics and notions that some human beings are not meant to start families or participate in society. Jake is Jewish and Vogel is anti-Semitic, and Mary initially takes offense at his candid critiques of her employer along with the judges and politicians who support the institution. Relying on arrogance herself, she tries to dismiss his concerns for inmates who are institutionalized until they can no longer bear children: “Why would I waste time worrying about his ill-informed ideas when I, at age eighteen, already knew more than he’d ever know about how power and justice really work in this world?”  

Power corrupts, including onlookers who may benefit the least. As Albert Einstein noted, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” As an orphan herself, Mary is timid and na├»ve, trying to rationalize the cruel inequities. At times, the book is too optimistic, offering minimal tension and obstacles in what had to be a treacherous workplace.


Mary and Jake manage to rescue Lillian, but Vogel and her political backers move on to more prominent positions, never investigated or condemned for forcing hundreds of young women to work as unpaid laborers, preventing them from pursuit of any type of normal life. Many women won their freedom only with menopause, and if they were lucky, families and friends helped keep past lives a secret.  Women raised in in rural Pennsylvania during the early 20th century feared and whispered about such places. Orphans, homeless, scorned wives understood they could be locked away for the best of years of their lives. And during the Depression, many families simply could not afford to assist or speak out. A century of change exposes the nightmarish conditions, regardless of good intentions, and readers can only wonder how citizens a century from now might assess today's under-funded schools, homeless shelters, prisons or immigrant camps. 

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime, noted Aristotle. 

The real institution of Laurelton took on many forms over the years, finally closing its doors in 1998. The empty buildings and more than 265 acres were sold for $1 million in 2021. 

Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Heritage and Architectural Afterlife.


Saturday, September 17

Echo Maker

 



Mark Schulter is left with brain injuries after overturning his truck on an isolated road in rural Nebraska. His sister, Karin, gives up job and home, returning to their hometown near the Platte River to provide care. The brother describes his condition like living in a video game, where he cannot advance to the next level. Karin worries about him being dependent on her for the rest of his life, that she would “fail him, as she had failed to protect her parents from their own worst instincts…. She needed him to be way he would never be again, a way that she was no longer sure that he had ever been.” Mark is belligerent and frustrated, and she describes this as a “crushing new innocence,” even though he discarded potential long before his accident. 

Mark is convinced that his sister is an imposter, gradually suspecting that his home, community and friends are fake, all conspiring to cover up a government plot. Further, he fears he is the center of this plot, possibly connected with the annual mass migration of sand cranes to the Platte River. 

The birds mate for life, following reliable patterns, while humans lie to one another, use one another and themselves, while destroying their own communities, families and homes. The annual migration appears massive only because increasing development reduces the birds’ habitat. The same numbers of birds crammed into less space brings stress and disease. “They used to roost along the whole Big Bend: a hundred and twenty miles or mile,” explains Daniel, the brother’s childhood friend, an environmentalist, and a lover whom Karin once discarded. “That he spent time with her at all left her amazed, ashamed, and grateful,” she notes at one point, and later decides: “What could he possibly get from their new connection? Simply the chance to do things right, at last. Reduce, reuse, recycle, retrieve, redeem.” She later finds herself wondering “Could anyone trust anyone who trusted anyone so much?” The answer, with these characters, is no.

The characters are susceptible to gossip, conspiracy theories and memories of past wrongs. Karin suggests that “people liked people who made them feel more secure,” but that is not really true of her relationship with her brother or anyone else. She lacks self-esteem, with memories of physical and sexual abuse. “Everyone alive was at least as scared as she was. Remember that, and a person might come to love anyone.” 

Karin pleads for advice from a renowned neuroscientist who agrees to meet the brother. Both Karin and the doctor harbor doubts about their own motivations in providing care. 

The neuroscientist seems to have the ideal life and marriage, but it soon becomes clear that he does not really listen to his wife or daughter. His job is his life, his priority, and he’s devastated after reviewers attack his most recent book detailing his approach to assisting patients. The accusation: He is “milking others’ personal disabilities for personal gain.” And so he decides to return to Nebraska and reexamine Mark, wondering why the case unsettles him so, but not hundreds of others. “What has triggered such continuous surprise in him, the sense of awakening from a long sham?” 

At one point, the neurologist marvels at the brain being “Unable to recognize that it’s suffering from any disorder.” That description applies to every character in the book.

Crisis can erode or strengthen individuals. Some people step up and find the reserves to do battle. Others, like a former journalist, withdraw: “She had lost something of herself, or thrown it away, refusing to compete…” 

The novel's title, The Echo Maker, suggests that an individual does not develop personality and character on his or her own, that we constantly respond to the comments and behavior of others via our own reactions and responses – a continuing echo process that imprints our behavior, forging our character and sometimes forcing us to repeat mistakes over and over. The neurologist describes how One group of scientists discovered a mirror-neuron system the monkey-see, monkey-do neurons. We observe and copy the behavior of those surrounding us, for better or worse. 

There are many selves – the past and remembered self, the mirror and echo self for others, the self we strive to keep intact from the control of others: “Every burst of light, every sound, every coincidence, every random path through space changed the brain, altering synapses, even adding them, while others weakened or fell away from lack of activity The brain was a set of changes for mirroring change. Use or lose. Use and lose. You lose, and the choice unmade you.”

And so we should choose carefully among our associates, escaping those who might limit our potential.

We must decide if our values and goals, our individual personality, can remain intact within the confines of our families and communities. Are we doing what we can to lift others? And if not, perhaps it’s better to be alone. 


Thursday, August 4

Lying for love

 

Two sisters, once close, take off from New York City for a monthlong vacation to Sunshine Falls, NC, the setting for a book by one of their favorite novelists. The younger sister, Libby, carries a checklist of activities for stepping out of their comfort zones. The two lost their single mom and Nora took on a mothering role. Nora admits she is set in her ways – orderly, demanding, grouchy – and she regularly procrastinates on her promise to start becoming “another Nora.” Nora tries to protect, pretending all is okay or fixing problems without Libby knowing: “I always want her to have everything she wants “– and a ‘tiny controlled version of things,” “the mess of it,” “all spills loose.”  

Both keep secrets, even lying in the effort not to alarm the other, and Nora, a book agent, admits: “I feel that heart-pinch sensation, like I’m missing her, like all our best moments are behind us.” She should wait until they are in their 50s or 60s. She tries to shape their lives like the stories she reads before sending them off for publishers. “Decisions, memories, activities are like constructing a story. “That’s life. You’re always making decisions, taking paths that lead you away from the rest before you can see where they end. Maybe that’s why we as a species love stories so much. All those chances for do-overs, opportunities to live the lives we’ll never have.” For Nora, her favorite books never offer the ending she wants, with characters confronting both loss and hope. Expecting another end is “a way to lose something you’ve never even had.” 

The sisters love each other and seek control like inept mothers, trying to make another human being happy by deeming to know what is best. But the problem with that control is that neither is pleased with the results. Sisters can be very, very different, and each must learn to live with that. 

The problem with small towns is apparent for Nora: “One minor lapse in judgment and you can’t go a mile without running into it.”  The closeness forces people to get to know one another and puts most on their best behavior. The two main characters are exceedingly cautious. Lengthy, quippy, contrived conversations prevent the couple from tackling topics with depth with constant interruptions for intimate or tough moments. At one point, Nora reflects that “Some books you don’t read so much as live.” Sadly, the dialogue gets in the way, taking on a stilted, tiresome quality, with characters, especially the editors, in the bad habit of mentally reassessing each comment and joke. Rather than relax, accept and enjoy time together, the couple obsesses about being viewed as boring, with one recalling a breakup line from the past: “If we stay together, every single day for the rest of our lives is going to be the same.” 

Nora works while on vacation on the author’s next book, featuring an agent who resembles Nora – a mean shark of a woman who is also “Tired, lonely, no real life.” And Nora increasingly worries about the distance and secrets and what her sister really thinks of her. “It’s one thing to accept that the person I love most is fundamentally unknowable to me; it’s another to accept that she doesn’t quite see me either. She doesn’t trust me, not enough to share what’s going on, not enough to lean on me or let me comfort her.” Nora comes to realize that the younger sister's memories of childhood are more painful than pleasant, including one when their mother broke down at a cash register because she could not afford a lime to make the girl’s favorite cookies. Memories, the narrative of childhood whether accurate or not, shape our moods, character and ambitions. 

I often advised students in a communications class taught to craft their lives and careers the way a writer selects details for a story. Consider the choices, aware of new paths and opportunities. Be prepared to adjust and revise. Build a set of memories and relationships to avoid dwelling on a life that could have been lived.