Heroics and Heartbreak in “Five Days at Memorial”

Did she or didn’t she? That’s the big question in Sheri Fink’s much-lauded work of nonfiction, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. The “Memorial” in the title is the now renamed Ochsner Baptist, located in New Orleans.

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Nearly ten years ago, after the levees failed following Hurricane Katrina, Baptist, like much of the city, began flooding. Fink spends close to 500 pages telling the stories of those who were there: patients, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and a great number of family members (and pets) who’d come to ride the storm out, as they’d done so many times before.

After Katrina delivered a glancing blow instead of a direct hit, many in the hospital mistakenly thought the worst was over. However, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Power went out, cutting air-conditioning, and not long after, the hospital’s three generators stopped working as the floodwaters rose, leaving them with no electricity whatsoever.

For many critically ill patients dependent on high-tech devices, the situation became serious. Brave nurses and doctors worked to keep everyone alive and as comfortable as possible — an unimaginable task when you consider the heat and humidity, the stress and lack of sleep, the fear and worry they all faced. Rescue was not easy, and while they did get many patients out safely (including all the premature babies), moving the sickest was a challenge. Indeed, doctors decided to evacuate the least sick and most able-bodied first, leaving the most vulnerable patients for later.

Many of these patients, though, would never leave, and would die at the hospital; 45 in all, the most of any of the New Orleans hospitals following the storm. How, and why, and would could have been done differently, are the questions that remain. Fink tries to answer them.

The book focuses on several doctors who were there, but the central figure is Dr. Anna Maria Pou, a native New Orleanian whose surgical specialty is head and neck cancer. Not long after the waters receded, allegations surfaced that some of the patients had been euthanized, with Dr. Pou and two nurses in the crosshairs. They vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying they only tried to make patients comfortable. Dr. Pou was eventually charged with second-degree murder, but a grand jury refused to indict her.

The truth is, we can’t know what really happened. Despite Fink’s precise reporting, she wasn’t there and neither were we. This book’s still worth reading, though, to appreciate the heroics of the staff who worked tirelessly in unfathomable conditions to help the patients who did survive.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-heartbreak-and-heroics-inside-a-flooded-hospital/)

Carver’s Legacy Shines in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Acclaimed short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver created a world in his writing that was much like his own hard Oregon upbringing: sparse and challenging, sparing no one heartbreak. Heavy drinkers and disillusioned people making bad choices fill Carver’s work. Credited with helping launch a resurgence in the modern American short story in the late 70s/early 80s, he died of lung cancer in 1988 at age 50, but left behind a towering literary legacy.

His second short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, published in 1981, is a slim volume of about 150 pages. With tales of love and woe, everyday life and the sometimes-unbelievable weirdness of it, and men and women locked in battle with each other and with themselves, the book would garner Carver resounding praise at the time and create an army of creative-writing-student devotees.

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One of the most striking things about the collection is its economy of phrase; you get the feeling that not a single extra word dare show itself. Carver’s writing here is lean, spare, and cool. Characters react to one another with passion, but there’s a distance between them and Carver’s rendering of their world that became part of his signature style. Crisp and unemotional, his work set a tone for modern American fiction that many still try to emulate today.

His short stories have also found their way onto the big screen, inspiring creative adaptations including director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993, which was based on nine of Carver’s stories from across several collections. More recently, the title story for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was featured in 2014’s Birdman, as the basis for the main character’s attempted Broadway production.

Birdman, which starred Michael Keaton, won the most recent Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as the awards for Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Undoubtedly, Carver’s work got a boost from Birdman’s success.

Interestingly, thanks in part to efforts from Carver’s widow, unedited versions of the stories from this collection have been published in the last decade. There are some significant differences between what Carver actually wrote and what his editor Gordon Lish published. Unedited, Carver wrote much longer and much lusher prose, with more evident emotion. This revelation has created questions about his so-called signature style.

Don’t let this dissuade you, though. I read the edited versions as well as a few unedited and enjoyed them both. You can find Carver in them all.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/06/book-biz-an-american-literary-legend-explores-life-and-love/)

“The Snow Leopard” Inspires and Enchants

In writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen’s beloved nonfiction work The Snow Leopard, we’re transported to the far-away land of the Himalayas, as he joins biologist George Schaller on a quest to study the rare blue sheep of that region. Both Schaller and Matthiessen hope to catch a glance of the elusive and near-mythic snow leopard, as well, as it stalks and hides among the hills and valleys of this harsh terrain.

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The book traces, in detail, their journey and their struggles over a more than two-month period in late 1973 in this remote part of the world that, back then, was largely unknown and unexplored by Westerners. And while it indeed catalogues their trek through cold and ice and through high altitudes that left them breathless, this book is also much more than a pure travel or adventure story.

Matthiessen’s wife, the poet Deborah Love, had died just months earlier from cancer. As a couple, they’d begun a quest of their own into Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. So, in addition to the physical nature of his journey through Nepal and the Tibetan region near China, Matthiessen was on a spiritual journey, as well, in this land of ancient Buddhist temples and practices. He left behind his 8-year old son to make this trip, where he hoped he might find some true understanding into impermanence and the ever-changing nature of reality.

Just as the actual hiking and camping for months in the desolate, high cold left Matthiessen exhausted and dirty, so too did his soul-searching. Though he was inspired by the many of the calm attitudes of the Sherpas and porters around him, all of whom came from that area, he nonetheless struggled with his own dark feelings of anger and frustration. It’s not easy to climb mountains, and it’s not easy to plumb the troubled depths of your heart, either. This book, which won the National Book Award (two actually!), beautifully bounces back and forth between these extremes, which is why it still resonates today.

Matthiessen, who died last year at age 86, was fascinating. The only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction, he also started The Paris Review, in part as cover for his work spying for the C.I.A. in Paris in the early 1950s. He would go on to establish himself as an early conservationist and free thinker, turning out work that reflected this larger view of the world during his long career. If you’re new to him, The Snow Leopard is a good start.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/06/book-biz-this-classic-story-of-the-himalayas-endures/)