What We’re Reading

Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya
By Jamaica Kincaid
(Washington D.C., National Geographic Society: 2005)
Reviewed by Nan Fink Gefen

In October 2002 Jamaica Kincaid journeyed deep into the mountains of Nepal with a trio of botanist friends in search of native Himalayan plants that would grow in her beloved Vermont garden. This account of her trip allows us a glimpse into the world Kincaid saw: thirty-foot rhododendron and unknown flora, isolated Himalayan villages, herds of yaks, pristine landscapes, and bats and leeches. We read about the Maoist guerrillas who threatened the group, and we learn about the painstaking process of seed collection. Kincaid’s writing is exquisite: “Sitting on the banks of the Tamur, a river so sure of itself it did not need to rage to look dangerous, just flowing along with an abundance of little wavelets peaking here and there, but the wide span of it made me take it seriously.”

The book is not only travel journal; it’s also a memoir. Kincaid lets us into her thoughts and her feelings: Her love for her children; her anger with the Sherpas when they set up camp too late; her fear of flying; her attachment to her Vermont garden. But most of all, Kincaid expresses the joy and wonder of exploring a new place. About the group’s stay in the village of Topke Gola, she writes: “Those two days were like that, perfect and perfect again, unerring. When we had soup made of yak blood and then a stew of yak meat all in the same meal, it was perfect. When during the night and the next day, our stomachs ached in upset at this sudden change in our diet, it was perfect.”

Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies
Edited by Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst
(Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2007)
Reviewed by Alice Herb

The personal is political—a linchpin of the women’s movement—is the essence of this compilation of stories from the sickroom and beyond. Health care with all its assorted complicated clinical and policy issues is quite dry and unaffecting until it is brought down to the personal level. The stories—and stories they are, whether in poetry or prose, by patients, caregivers, and professionals baring their innermost feelings—need to be brought into the discussion if we are ever going to make sense of our dysfunctional health care system. As these women tell us of their fears, helplessness, and sadness, and we see their inner strength, fortitude, humor, and sisterhood, we realize that these experiences are not isolated events but situations that most likely at one time or another each one of us will have to face.

From Amy Haddad’s poetic evocation of what a sterotactic biopsy was like, to Regina Arnold’s cry that hair matters, to Edith Wypler Swire’s horror of the colostomy bag or Joan Baranow’s depiction of IVF; from psychotherapist Joan Milano’s sharing the last days of her beloved son’s final illness or Maggi Hoffman’s etching forever in time the personality of her premature dying baby, each narrative touches a nerve. From the very young to the aged, women of every color, professional women, women in prison, ordinary but not ordinary, they give us the gift of letting us realize that we are never alone. There is always someone who has been there.

In my professional work as an attorney/ethicist, teaching medical students, residents, health advocates, and others, I rely on stories such as these to help students walk in the shoes of those they serve. My own experience of being widowed twice and losing a 21-year-old son is that once one has crossed that line, life will be different. Health care providers, legislators, politicians, and the public have to be made aware. This book is a must for every reading list. Well-written, including exceptional poetry, it is revealing and in its own way uplifting.

Howard’s End
By E.M. Forster
(Modern Library, 2001)
Reviewed by Martha Roth

Why re-read this novel, originally published in 1910? Because it’s even better than the film: the story of a pair of New Women up against the barricades of Victorian notions of class and gender. Margaret Schlegel, a young bluestocking, lives in London with her sister Helen; they go to concerts and lectures and entertain intellectual friends. On holiday in Germany they meet the Wilcox family. When Helen—who “resembled her sister, but she was pretty, and so apt to have a more amusing time”—visits the Wilcoxes at their country house, Howards End, she falls in love with the house, as Margaret does later, and the story charts the sisters’ journey back to it via marriages and deaths, an affair, and a disastrous relationship with a lower-middle-class family.

The Schlegels’ bohemian social arrangements—they meet lovers on holiday or at concert intervals—challenge the Wilcoxes’ unimaginative propriety, and Margaret’s mantra, “Only connect,” works through many meanings: connecting head and heart, or behavior and belief, and attacking the sexual double standard that forgives a man’s adultery and condemns a woman’s unmarried pregnancy. Forster, himself a product of the upper-middle class, can “only connect” so far; the lives of his characters depend on many servants, but except for one chauffeur none of them has a name. In 21st-century America, Howards End feels almost like anthropology, except that Forster’s prose has great charm and his story is timelessly engaging. This is one country house that is worth a second visit.

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