Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: The Cracker Queen

For the week of Easter 2011 I decided to read a southern writer from Georgia.  I selected The Cracker QueenA Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life by Lauretta Hannon.  The first important note is that Mrs. Hannon considers herself the anti=southern belle which after reading this book I take to mean she is independent, open-minded, purposeful, and not afraid of too much of anything.  After growing up in the south with a mom who had a drinking problem and was once institutionalized and a father that had a complete family before he met her mother, Mrs. Hannon had it quite rough all throughout her childhood.  Now down south you will come across and be entertained by some truly rare characters.  For instance, in Mrs. Hannon's life there was the goat man who basically was a nomad with a herd of goats, but he lived simply and was happy all the same.  Then there is her mom's sister who evidently sees and feels events before they happen.  At one point Mrs. Hannon and her mom live in a motel with a war veteran who sits by the pool and looks for helicopters believing he is still very much "in the war zone".  I think Mrs. Hannon is most impressed by her father's relatives she visits once each year in the summer who appear educated and poised, particularly her Aunt Martha.  Her time spent working in Savannah actually frightened me the most due to all the gang activity which I must say probably does exist; although, I have never witnessed it on my vacations there.

Mrs. Hannon eventually makes it through college and out on her own with several postions at various colleges in Savannah and in metro Atlanta.  Although she dislikes the commute from Atlanta to the suberbs and eventually quits her job and moves elsewhere, I have enjoyed my time out here in the suburbs of Atlanta and regularly journey into the city.  It is nice to live in the country yet have access to big city amenities.  I think the main theme of this book comes toward the final chapters in which Mrs. Hannon talks about what it takes to be "A Cracker Queen" which in my mind constitutes a non-nonsense, independent-minded, and adventurous southern woman.  Now personally, I could never identify myself as a cracker queen simply because where I grew up in North Carolina "cracker" in reference to a white person was a derogatory term.  I do agree with the concept of strong-willed, take no prisoners, live purposely, and be gracious attitude by which Mrs. Hannon abides.  I think she speaks for a great many strong, southern women and demonstrates a great change that has taken place among the stereotypical southern belle.  If you like vivacious, spirited, southern writers then this is the perfect memoir for you. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: Girl Meets God

In this week's memoir read, I glimpsed the recollections of author Lauren Winner's journey from a childhood and early college experiences as a devout Jewish follower to a later conversion to Episcopalian.  She opens with the understanding that her Jewish lineage comes from her father (who is nonpracticing) and her mother is a lapsed
Baptist.  Once her parents divorce, her mother promises her father that she will raise Lauren in the Jewish faith.  She discusses her early experiences of building a Jewish library at her childhood home in Virginia and even conveys her astonishment of discovering that because her Jewish lineage comes from her father and not her mother, she must actually "convert" to Judaism because only the mother's religious lineage is recognized.  She does intense study of the Jewish faith and is followed closely by three rabbis who eventually question her and then observe her "conversion" via water to Judaism.    Once she enters the later years of college, she decides that she wishes for a more personal relationship with God which she appears to discover via the Christian faith in the form of an Episcopal church in New York.  Following two years studying in England, she is baptized and confirmed as a Christian.

The interesting parts of this memoir for me were the descriptions and explanations behind many of both the Jewish and Christian religions.  I did not grow up knowing any Jewish children in rural North Carolina.  Nor did I know any Episcopalians until I began working as a teacher.  It is astonishing how much the author is ostracized from her Jewish peers due to her conversion to Christianity.  She feels as if she has lost an entire family as many of her peers seem to excommunicate her.  She still struggles with the complexities of each faith.  For example, she has a problem with the manner in which Easter plays depict the Jewish people persecuting Jesus; she relates well that it is not the Jewish people that take out Jesus, but the weight of our sins.  She also clearly relates that both faiths have a commonality in Messiah; one faith believes he has come and the other faith is waiting for his return.  Further, there is the need for atonement in the Jewish faith via Yom Kippur while in her Christian faith she atones via her own prayer life and through confession.

From my perspective as a Methodist, I keep wanting to advise her to join the Unitarian faith which is comprised of many people from a host of religious backgrounds.  She has such a struggle to determine where her true religious intentions lie, with Judaism or Christianity.  And I have seen many dual religious affiliated households where one partner is of one faith and the other partner is of a radically different faith where they appear to find solace with the Unitarians.  And as most Unitarian ministers will tell you, whenever there is a convergence of ministers, rabbis, priests, etc. the host generally will turn to the Unitarian minister to pray over the meeting, exchange, or program.  To me, Unitarian Universalism would be the excellent compromise for a person like the author who has a deep love of both religions, but as I understand from many other religious folks, sometimes Unitarian Universalism is not formal or traditional enough to meet their religious expectations.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Breast Cancer Memoir

This week I spent my non-querying hours reading the memoir entitled Eating Pomegranates:  A Memoir Of Mothers, Daughters, And The BRCA Gene by Sarah Gabriel.  Undoubtedly, this is the most intense and vivid breast cancer memoir I have ever read.  Mrs. Gabriel does not sugarcoat the process from diagnosis, treatment, and recovery and I appreciated that kind of take on a subject like breast cancer as my own mom has suffered from it as well.  This particular memoir is written from both a personal patient experience and a historical perspective so the reader is learning not only about Mrs. Gabriel's experiences as a BRCA1 breast cancer survivor, but also quite a few historical elements about the discovery and treatment of breast cancer from the 16th, 17th, and 18the centuries. 

The book begins with the knowledge that the author has a family history of female cancers including her inheritance of the BRCA1 gene from her mother's side of the family.  The author lost her mother to ovarian cancer while she was away at Oxford.  Her mother was only 42 years of age at the time and it was a very hush-hush affair.  The author's father was left with five children to raise and he firmly believed in coping via a stiff upper lip and no disclosure of mourning.  The father begins living with his second wife just ten weeks after the death of Mrs. Gabriel's mother.  Subsequently, Mrs. Gabriel learns another cousin has died of breast cancer on her mother's side of the family.  She actually discovers the lump in her breast before the doctor or xray does.  She brings it to the attention of her doctor and immediately she winds up having an ultrasound done where it is discovered Mrs. Gabriel has six tumors.  Following a biopsy we learn that three of the tumors are malignant, but none of the six tumors have reached the lymph nodes.

Then there is the process of whether she should have just one breast removed or both and in what manner should she have them removed.  Does she wish to have breast reconstruction after about a year?  Mrs. Gabriel does extremely well in communicating her fear of passing this genetic inheritance on to her own daughters and the anxiety with which her family is riddled while she undergoes surgery and then six rounds of chemotherapy.  Her young daughters fully realize something is wrong with their mother and that it is not good.  Mrs. Gabriel seeks the counsel of someone to figure out how to tell her daughters what is about to happen to her and beautifully describes the concept of cancer to them. 

The author has great fear of dying and leaving her daughters without a mother.  Her husband already has his hands full trying to handle the home, school, work, and medical appointments with his wife.  They hire a nanny, but the nanny never takes the time with the children that a mother would.  There is a great rift between the author and her father who appears to be such a fickle man; at once not wishing to bring up any mention of her mother for twenty years and then also keeping the author's children while she has surgery.  There is a realistic portrayal in this memoir about the grossness of chemotherapy.  Interestingly, Mrs. Gabriel is constantly spoken to by other mothers and acquaintances as she walks her daughters to school, but most of these same people are frightened of her reality; of the very real mortality she is facing.  They subsequently keep telling her to "put one foot in front of the other" and "stay positive".  You never see these individuals really every truly reaching out to help Mrs. Gabriel or her family which is quite sad.

The reader also is invited into the lives of a network of cancer survivors in a support group setting.  Personally, I think this is where Mrs. Gabriel feels least alone because these cancer victims relate to her state of being physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Some of them are worse off than she and others are at an earlier stage in their treatment process for cancer than the author currently is.  By the conclusion, Mrs. Gabriel finally has a long discussion about her mother's death with her father and she realizes that even though her daughters have suffered tremendously during this anxiety filled time, they are stronger people for having been through this along with their mother.  The only really true thing we have to hold on to when mortality comes calling in the form of cancer is the love we have for those closest to us.  The people who will be there come what may which is all too often our immediate family members.  The love we have for them and the love they have for us is what keeps us going in such a dastardly time; it's what makes life worth living. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

OCD Memoir

This past week I concluded reading the memoir Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher which chronicles her bouts with obsessive compulsive disorder from around the age of ten through age thirty.  The compulsion she has begins with shredding napkins underneath the dinner table.  It then becomes picking up sharp objects on the way to school or when out to walk her dog because she believes if she does not then people will have car accidents and die because she left those objects behind.  Her father dies when she is around twelve years of age and she believes whe is responsible in some way because she was having evil thoughts about the cousins she was staying with at the time she learned of his death.  To amend for all the people she believes she has fictionally killed or caused harm she prayers incessantly and she even counts the number of times she prays.  When ambulances go by she begins saying a particular prayer so many times in hopes that the victim will not come to an untimely demise.  Her obsessive-compulsive behavior continues through college; however, it is suspended somewhat when she begins the medication called Anafranil.  She likes to befriend people who are accepting of her condition and tends to fall in love with men who have serious health issues of their own.  For example, Ben has a history of not eating, bulemia, and anorexia.

This main character has a complex relationship with her mother who she continually prays for and who has lost not only her first husband, but her second husband as well.  In my mind, the mother appears to suffer from a hoarding obsession and also has elements of obsessive compulsive illness in that she continually makes lists.  Everything comes crashing down when the main character's mother becomes ill.  At that point, Abby leaves a treatment program for anorexia, comes off medication, and witnesses her mother's demise. Throughout this time, she continues with prayers and inflicting pain upon herself as she seems to believe that she is at fault in many ways for her mother's illness.   In the end, she is married to a man who is accepting of her condition and has a rock solid character.  She becomes pregnant and once agains goes off her medications which now include Paxil and Wellbutrin.  She is able to reduce some of her compulsions and obsessiveness, but not entirely which is what worried me about the ending to the book.

As an individual who once suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder myself from age 18 until age 25, this book brought back some familiar territory only my obsessions were constantly going over my bank balances, tax forms, and also praying.  I'm beginning to wornder if OCD is found more frequently among religious folks in the population.  My worry was that by age 25 as I exited an abusive relationship, my OCD essentially fell by the wayside and I have had no further problems althought I still take medication regularly.  My curiosity is did the author of this memoir ever truly recover from obsessive-compulsive behavior and will her own child also be prone to developing the disorder as well.  That's probably a whole separate book.  This book was a gread read and I would recommend it highly.