Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

smoke The meaning of life is that it ends – Franz Kafka (from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014) by Caitlin Doughty)

There comes a time in many of our lives when our preoccupation with mortality deepens, and the possibility of death seems to brim with a whole new meaning. I am not talking about when we first discover death as five-year olds, terrified and confused by the finality of it. This renewed understanding seems to happen much later, and to those of us who are lucky to live to be adults.

My mother tells me that when I was a petite six-year old, I would stare sadly at any senior we encountered, even for the briefest period. Because, I said, they were soon going to die. As a parent of a young child, who has had his own phase, I was afraid that he would ask a random white-haired, wrinkle-skinned person the question nobody wants to be asked: Are you going to die soon? While I may laugh at my fears over coffee with a friend, I know that the seeds have been sown. Death will now and forever occupy some portion of my child’s mind-space.

Caitlin Doughty, the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2014), talks about having a complicated relationship with death since she was a little girl. “Ever since childhood, when I found out that the ultimate fate for all humans was death, sheer terror and morbid curiosity had been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” As a young girl , Doughty witnessed the accidental death (I should say possible death, for the fate of the person is unknown) of another young girl—a memory that lingers on in Doughty’s mind long after the tragedy. “I became ‘functionally morbid’, consumed with death, disease and darkness yet capable of passing as a quasi-normal school girl.”

Quite recently, science reporter David Adam spoke with Terry Gross on Fresh Air about his OCD regarding HIV/AIDS. I believe that many of us share this “hypervigilance about an obsessive fear” (as Terry puts it) in varying degrees over various subjects. Most of this ‘many’ learn to be functionally morbid, yet privately absorbed in their thoughts.

Doughty talks about being drawn to not just death and dying, but to bodies, death rituals, grief, and other aspects of mortality. After spending four years at college researching the subject, Doughty finally decides that she has had enough of death on paper, and wants real bodies and real death. She then takes up the position of a crematory operator at a family-owned mortuary with dreams of one day owning a unique funeral home, La Belle Mort (Beautiful Death).

The book demystifies the post-death journey of those who choose to be cremated, and how they get from Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so to an urn of ashes and ground up bones. I knew very little about how modern crematories operate in the United States, and Doughty’s account was helpful in understanding how people  (veterans, mothers, incarcerated drug addicts, the still born, amputated body parts, and bodies donated to science) all meet the same fate.

Corpses are rarely a thing of beauty. While they are themselves dead, they are a breeding ground for a veritable host of living creatures that, while are too tiny to be seen themselves, are not shy about leaving their mark behind. Decomposition is hard to miss, and you often smell it before you see it. As a crematory operator, Doughty was required to make the bodies ‘natural’ and presentable’ for a viewing, if the families so desired it. This involves make-up, of course, but also shaving, wiring the gums together, eyecaps to mask the flattened eyeballs, and other unnatural devices. While this prettying up is not meant to last more than a few hours, corpse preservation has apparently been a national preoccupation for about a century and a half. Embalming, as the process is known and which Doughty describes in some detail, “decorating our dead as lurid, painted props on fluffy pillows” is “the primary procedure in North America’s billion-dollar funeral industry.” Even a corpse can be a product.

Procedural details aside, Doughty’s central thesis is that the modern (American) relationship with death is fundamentally unhealthy. Our children are raised in a carefully corpse-free world, where people no longer die in their homes, bodies are transported quickly and discreetly in anonymous white vans, painstakingly given a “life-like” appearance before being expensively disposed. Doughty argues that corpses “keep the living tethered to reality”, make us aware of own mortality and in that process give rise to self-awareness and “the beginning of wisdom”, going as far as to say that the absence of dead bodies is the root cause of problems in the world.

Encountering a corpse forced the man who would be Buddha to see life as a process of unpredictable and constant change. It was life without  corpses, trapped behind the palace walls, that had prevented him from reaching enlightenment.

Far from destroying the meaning in our lives, death, Doughty says, is the very source of our creativity, “the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love and create…the great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.” According to Doughty, our culture that actively denies death and hides bodies is to blame not only for this morbid fear of death, but also for acting as a barrier to a good death—a death where living is valued over life, where life is not prolonged indiscriminately, where death is accepted as being serene and beautiful, just as birth is.

I found Smoke Gets in Your Eyes entertaining, not only because of  Doughty ‘s description of her unusual occupation,  but also because while ageing and dying seem to be the topic of many timely and important articles, memoirs and discussions, literature about death and the dead body is perhaps still considered too morbid for mainstream consumption. This book made me think about the meaning (or lack thereof) of the many rituals surrounding death, cultural practices surrounding the disposal of the corpse, and the idea of death as an impetus for life.


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Looking for Palestine

I received an advance reading copy of ‘Looking for Palestine. Growing up confused in an Arab-American family‘ by Najla Said as part of a LibraryThing giveaway. 

I know of Edward Said because I read part of the introduction he wrote in Joe Sacco’s Palestine, where I think he also mentions his (most well-known work), Orientalism. I haven’t read either books, though Palestine has languished in my TBR pile for years. Orientalism, I know nothing about – I haven’t read the book, and, now, I am not really sure if my understanding of its meaning is entirely correct. Also, I always thought that Edward Said’s last name was pronounced ‘Sed’ (as in the past tense of ‘say’).

For me, it is a good thing, really, to learn about the extent of my ignorance (on occasion; very often might inflict serious damage to my self-esteem). Knowing that I know not, is many times the first step to repairing the state of affairs. In this case, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the history and the politics of the Palestine-Israel region. In that context, I don’t know what the politically correct terms were/are, nor do I know anything about what it means/meant to be an Arab (or Arab-American) in a country that is vocally pro-Israel. This book is not an annotated history of Palestine, but I am grateful to it for bringing my uninformed state to my attention.

Najla Said, as you know or might have guessed, is Edward Said’s (pronounced ‘Sayeed’; did I hear a ‘duh’?) daughter. Edward Said, she says:

is the author of Orientalism, the book that everyone reads at some point in college, whether in history, politics, Buddhism, or literature class…It’s mainly because of my father that people now say “Asian American” instead of “Oriental.”


Najla’s famous father is Palestinian, and her mother is Lebanese. They are Arabs. They are also Christians. Growing up with a multitude of identities, and yet not being able locate one she was comfortable in; confronting the realities of both being associated with what was considered a “barbaric” and “backward” clan while also not fitting into others’ notions of the same clan; growing up fairly privileged in a much less ethnically diverse New York than it is now, Najla spent much of her childhood and later years dealing with the anguish of her inner turmoil.

Most of us are guilty of sweeping generalizations, some totally harmless, others less innocuous. For instance, Najla writes that “An Arab is a person whose native language is Arabic.” She also writes that “[by 1979] the words “Arab” and “Muslim” were already synonymous with “crazy, violent terrorists” (an unfair generalization). Assumptions related to terrorism aside, the words “Arab” and “Muslim” are considered synonymous, to some extent, even today. Just as “Indians” are immediately associated with the “bindi” (a harmless assumption, really). Najla speaks of being asked why she didn’t have “a dot” on her forehead at school, and replies, “I am not Indian!!!”.

Reading any work of non-fiction, and especially memoirs, requires the reader to take a leap of faith and presume reasonable honesty and sincerity in the writer’s depiction of life events. Najla’s voice is beautiful in its simplicity, and seems entirely her own, and her famous daddy is just that, her daddy,

Now I’ll be sure to read both Orientalism and Palestine.

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I have two books to blame for my slow reading spell this past month. One, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, was almost poetic, and I spent considerable time re-reading it (something I am not usually wont to do). The second, Haiti After the Earthquake, simply took me forever, although I am glad I read it.


On January 12, 2010, at close to five in the evening, the earth shook  for about thirty seconds. In the hours and months that followed, horrific estimates of the dead, destroyed and injured emerged. More than two hundred thousand were dead, a million were injured, and more than a million were left homeless. Twenty thousand had to undergo amputations. Most municipal buildings were destroyed or gravely damaged. This included the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, City Hall, and the main jail. Many primary and secondary schools were also destroyed, as were some major universities.

And yet, the devastation was not entirely natural. Indeed, it might even be called unnatural, as Evan Lyon insists it is:

The disaster on January 12, 2010 was…an absolutely unnatural disaster at the dangerous intersection of a natural trigger…and an absolutely unnatural vulnerability created in Haiti by centuries of political, environmental, and social forces.

An earthquake is only as catastrophic as the buildings and other physical infrastructure in the area are weak. Haiti’s Port-au-Prince area, where the quake hit, was not only overcrowded, but the offices and schools and hospitals that housed the people of the city were poorly engineered and constructed, and came crushing down on them all too soon. It is estimated that 95% of buildings in Haiti are self-constructed, and in the absence of a national building code, these structures were downright dangerous. If man made conditions allowed this natural disaster to result in unnatural loss, they also delayed the recovery of the country and its people.

Haiti’s challenges are many, and deeply rooted in its troubled history. Born of a slave revolt, Haiti is the world’s first black republic. However, the Haitians’ victory in achieving freedom proved pyrrhic. The world, or at least that part of it that it had dealings with, was openly hostile and actively thwarted Haiti’s growth with unfair trade policies and crippling debts.

During the twentieth century, Haiti had survived a foreign occupation (followed by various regimes of short duration, none properly elected), a twenty-nine-year-long family dictatorship with scant interest in long-term development, a series of military-civilian juntas, brief democratic rule, more coups, and the slow sundering of a once united popular movement.

Political instability only exacerbated the nation’s intractable poverty. The country has been plagued by social, economic, and ecological problems – “shoddy housing, bare hillsides and overfished waters, scarce access to clean water and modern sanitation, an undesirable business environment, cash-strapped health and school systems, high structural unemployment…”. The earthquake was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, an acute event that pushed an existing chronic condition to beyond breaking point. The Port-au-Prince area is as crowded as the countryside is silent – bereft even of the scant services offered in the capital. The concentration of public services in Port-au-Prince meant that “many died or were maimed at the time of the quake because they came to the capital to study or simply apply for a passport.” Those that were uncovered from the rubble alive were laid under the open sky. Painkillers, X-ray machines, operating supplies and rooms, why, even basic supplies were insufficient for the vast ocean of human beings with crushed limbs and uncertain futures. Indeed, these supplies and services were never nearly enough, even in pre-quake Haiti. And so, “twenty-first-century people die(d) of nineteenth century afflictions – minor injuries and simple fractures as well as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other infections, such as tetanus, preventable with a vaccine available for pennies”. Conditions in quake-ravaged Haiti also proved ripe for a cholera epidemic that struck in October of 2010, and killed around 8,000 more people.

The earth would have shook anyway, but did so many have to fall?

The international community responded with generosity. A staggering $9.9 billion of reconstruction pledges were made on March 31, 2010, at a donor conference. But deploying the aid effectively was another story. “Everyone wanted to help, but no one knew exactly what to do”. Take the case of the “young Canadian man who, wanting to help out in Haiti, flew to the Dominican Republic and drove west to Port-au-Prince without much in the way of cash – or anything other than his goodwill. Before long, he ran out of money, and the Canadian embassy had to help send him home. It was meant as a lesson about the importance of planning and the shortcomings of goodwill alone.”

Farmer writes at length about the need to invest in Haiti’s people, in its government and public institutions (instead of directing funds through not-for-profits),  to lead to sustainable and equitable development and local capacity building for Haiti so that the nation can thrive without continued dependence on foreign assistance. Haiti needs more jobs, local business development, watershed protection, alternative energies, access to food, water, education and healthcare, and not just in Port-au-Prince.

Farmer’s account is long. Important, but long. An essay in this book, “Lopital Jeneral Struggles to Survive”, by Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health, offers a much shorter, thoughtfully written, equally poignant account of many of the aspects of the disaster. 

Haitians have long been celebrated for their resilience in the face of hardships. But, as a young Haitian says in the book:

If being resilient means that we’re able to suffer much more than other people, it’s really not a compliment.

It is not. This characterization is a sad reminder of the inequalities in this world.

On a different note, I wish Farmer did not try so hard to tell us how much he adores President Clinton. However, I do note that Farmer, like all of us,  is not beyond criticism, but this book is ultimately not about Farmer, or Clinton. It is about Haiti.

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Goodreads tells me that I’ve read just four books since Gone Girl – nearly two months. And three of those I read in the last 10 days. Life gets busy sometimes. But I still managed to reach my original reading goal of 60 books for this year, and I just upped it to 70 (which, I realize, might be a couple of books too many).

On my reading pile for the next few days, I have Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, and Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death. Although I didn’t love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (her detective), I liked her writing well enough to try another book. I was also influenced by other blogs which had nice things to say about the series.

I recently finished Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953 – in which James Bond makes his debut)I am not a James Bond fan, and probably never will be. I just saw the book on the husband’s pile and thought why not. Though far less poignant, and certainly less intense, Casino Royale reminded me of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). I also read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West that chronicles Shin In Guen’s escape from one of North Korea’s infamous political prison camps. Although aspects of day-to-day life (or what passed for life) at the camp in many ways resembled that in concentration camps from half a century ago, Shin had no yardstick to assess the quality of his life – he was born in the camp, the product of a camp-sanctioned reward marriage. Camp life was mostly hunger, snitching, and survival.

…while Auschwitz existed for only three years, Camp 14 is a fifty-year-old Skinner box, an ongoing longitudinal experiment in repression and mind control in which guards breed prisoners whom they control, isolate, and pit against one another from birth.

Shin escaped by what one can only describe as a series of remarkably lucky breaks. While escape meant that Shin could finally get his hands on the grilled meat that he had dreamt of all his life, assimilation continues to be a struggle. Escape from Camp 14 is very different from the only other account of life in totalitarian North Korea that I have read – Pyongyang (2007), the account of a French-Canadian cartoonist/animator in the country’s capital.

But the book I have the most to write about is 102 minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (2005) by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102 minutes

Over a decade later, the memories of that Tuesday morning are still raw, fresh, and excruciatingly painful, even for someone who watched the drama unfold on television half a planet away. Media – first person accounts, books, and the very graphic footage of the towers’ demise, as well as the transcripts of the 911 calls made by those trapped within, continue to grip our hearts with deep anguish. My interest in the book was purely to remedy my somewhat ignorant understanding of the events of the day, although I was aware that it would be a painful exercise. 102 minutes is not quite the account I was looking to read (which I would have realized had I paid close attention to the subtitle). Gleaned from interviews with survivors and rescuers alike, and from emergency radio, phone and email transcripts, 102 minutes is Dwyer and Flynn’s attempt to reconstruct what happened inside the towers after the planes struck them, from the time the North tower was struck at 8:46 am, to when it collapsed at 10:28 am (the South tower, though struck second at 9:02 am, collapsed first at 9:59 am), a total of 102 minutes. Dwyer and Flynn’s take is that, acts of tremendous valor notwithstanding, far more people died that fateful day than those who had to:

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City reports that 2, 749 people died in the attacks on New York. Of these, 147 were passengers or crew members on the two flights; in the buildings, no more than 600 people were on floors where the planes hit, close enough to be killed immediately. Another 412 of the dead were rescue workers who came to help. The rest, more than 1,500 men and women, survived the plane crashes, but were trapped as far as twenty floors from the impact. Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes.

Dwyer and Flynn argue that the fates of these trapped men and women were sealed years ago when the towers were designed – with insufficient stairways and inadequate fireproofing, and by the long-standing malaise that characterized the relationship between the Police and Fire Departments. The towers were not built for total evacuation, rather only for evacuation of the few floors that were affected by the fire with the assumption that the fireproofing would contain the fire damage, and any fires would simply burn themselves out. Even with the haze of shock, fear and confusion taken into account, “failures of communication, coordination, and command” doomed the lives of all those desperate men and women, and the heroic firefighters who rushed in to rescue them.

Nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters in the murders of September 11, 2001, which stand beyond mitigation as the defining historical truth of the day. The ferocity of the attacks meant that innocent  people lived or died because they stepped back from a doorway, or hopped onto a closing elevator, or simple shifted their weight from one foot to another. That said, simply to declare that the hijackers alone killed all those people gives them far more credit as tacticians than they are due. The buildings themselves became weapons, apparently well beyond the designs of the hijackers, if not their hopes; so, too, did a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform, even when confronted again and again with the dangers of business as usual.

Dwyer and Flynn’s narrative certainly captures the alarm, the panic, the confusion of those wretched minutes, and its tragically cruel aftermath. While hundreds of people were desperately trying to reach 911 and family, and wetting handkerchiefs with milk and water from flower vases to help them breathe through the smoke, firefighters were rushing up in a misguided attempt to save them.

A firefighter’s turnout coat, pants, boots, and helmet weight twenty-nine and a half pounds. The mask and oxygen tank add another twenty-seven pounds, bringing the basic load to fifty-six and a half pounds. Firefighters in engine companies also carry fifty feet of hose, called a roll-up, with aluminum fittings on each end. That weighs thirty pounds, increasing the load to eighty-six and a half pounds…In the ladder companies, some firefighters carried an extinguisher and hook, thirty-eight pounds, while others toted an ax and the Halligan tool, an all-purpose pry bar, with a weight of twenty-five pounds. One firefighter from each unit also carried a lifesaving rope, 150 feet long and weighing twenty-two pounds. They all carried one or more piece of equipment: a radio, the Motorola Saber, which weighs one pound, seven ounces.

Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer climbed 38 floors to reach the impact zone on the 78th floor of the South Tower, sometimes covering a flight of stairs in just  twenty-one seconds. Five minutes later the tower collapsed.

The Architectural Fact Sheet of the Freedom Tower at One World Trade center mentions safety features, including extra-wide pressurized stairs, additional stair exit locations at all adjacent streets and direct exits to the street from tower stairs, and a dedicated stair for use by firefighters.

Six more days, and six more books to achieve my goal.

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On April 20, 1999, four years and one day after Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City (the date was no coincidence), Columbine stopped being the name of a high school in Colorado and took on a new meaning – a horrifying American tragedy, a deadly school shooting, a massacre. I did not hear about Columbine or the Oklahoma City Bombing until years later, when other school shootings were referred as ‘Columbines’. Or, I might have heard about a shocking shooting on the other side of the world, but the word ‘Columbine’ never really registered. In 1999, I was in high school myself, and can hardly imagine an 18-year old cooking napalm on his stovetop, or having the imagination and brains to envision and plan a massacre, and be consumed with so much wrath as to desire to blow up a school full of people. For that was their vision – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not intend to kill twelve students and a teacher, but wipe out the entire school. Columbine was a bombing that fizzled out.

In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species, Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.

They had a plan: A diversionary bomb in nearby park to keep the police occupied while they detonated bombs in the school cafeteria during lunch break (for maximum impact), manned exits to shoot down any escapees, and finally kill themselves. Fortunately, Eric’s bomb making skills were not top-notch and all of the bombs failed to detonate. The guns worked, though. Eric and Dylan shot at students and teachers, killing thirteen and grievously injuring many more, before blowing their own brains out.

Dave Cullen’s account of the shooting, Columbine (2009), was published a decade after the event, fleshed out, he says, from official documents, journals and videos made by the killers, police records, summaries of counseling sessions, and memory of the survivors, with any remaining gaps (and there were some) filled by criminal psychologists. Cullen starts out describing the shooting as it played out from the victims’ point-of -view, and weaves back and forth between Eric and Dylan’s evolution to becoming partners-in-crime, to the aftermath – a stunned community, the media frenzy, the investigation, and the survivors’ lives. Cullen also aims to clear up myths that sprang up easily and abundantly in the hysteria and confusion that followed the incident, and to paint a profile of the killers. Eric and Dylan, he concludes, did not kill because they were part of the ‘Trench Coat Mafia’ (although they did wear trench coats that fateful day), or because they were Goths, or listened to Marilyn Manson, or because they were outcast loners who were bullied by rich, snotty jocks. The killers had no specific trigger, they had no specific target. They dreamed of making a large, indiscriminate kill and ending their own lives.

Eric, Cullen writes, was a textbook psychopath, “charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy”. Eric killed for two reasons – “to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it”. Dylan, was depressed, angry, and suicidal. Together, they formed an effective dyad – “the psychopath and the depressive“, a murderous pair who fed off each other.

An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair, The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill.

Eric’s psychopathy had been simmering for at least two years before the shooting, and he was convinced of his own superiority over the witless idiots all around him. He didn’t snap, but an incident did set his plan in motion: Eric and Dylan were arrested in their junior year for breaking into a van (they’d got into trouble earlier for vandalism and such). Eric’s contempt grew into a seething rage, but, he maintained a cool and charming, even repentant, exterior, as most psychopaths do. Nobody – his family, his psychiatrist- had a clue. Dylan, on the other hand, was painfully shy, but prone to angry outbursts. His parents thought he might be suicidal, but certainly not homicidal.

Cullen devotes a considerable part of Columbine to the post-shooting years. The mourning, the slow recovery, the post-traumatic stress disorder, and the paranoia that seeped into the entire community. Eric and Dylan’s parents were blamed by many for raising killers. But Cullen says that parenting might not be responsible.

It also appears that even the best parenting may be no match for a child born to be bad.

But the parents still faced a horde of lawsuits.

After years of wrangling, most of the fringe cases were dismissed…That left the killers’ families. They wanted to settle. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had insurance. It turned out their home owner’s policies covered murder by their children.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that about home owner’s insurance.

Even mental health specialists are no match for psychopaths – Eric convinced his own therapists that he was contrite and well on his way to turning over a new leaf. So, what should adults look out for?

  • Leakage – Cullen says that 81% of shooters confided their intentions, which were not vague, implied or implausible. “The danger sky-rockets when threats are specific and direct, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out”.
  • An unhealthy, morbid preoccupation with death, destruction and violence. Repetitive violent fantasies with mutilation, guns, brutality and a vivid imagination

As with other works of journalism, I’ll have to take Cullen’s word that his hypothesis is the product of comprehensive research. Columbine is certainly gripping. And scary. I hope that the any lessons that were learned from the shooting would never have to be put to use.

Other works about true-crime that I (and many others, I’m sure) have read and enjoyed:

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

In True Blood

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Another impromptu pick at the library, Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me (2012) by Sarah Leavitt, may well be one of this year’s most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had.

I tend to stay away from illness memoirs. I don’t have the courage to read them. Even flipping through them and catching sight of painful, hopeless words and phrases here and there throws me into a deep gloom, and an even deeper dread. If I had ever imagined that physical illnesses are in any way worse than mental illnesses, or more painful, or more distressing, was I ever wrong! Illnesses that manifest themselves in the form of bodily pain, and that force us to confront our own mortality, are terrifying to imagine. If a person, because of impaired cognitive ability, is spared the knowledge, is that not a better situation?


The only reason I picked up a memoir about Alzheimer’s, a memoir of sickness and dying and sadness, is because I do not have an Alzheimer’s phobia. I was able to read and weep through the book, and appreciate how utterly beautiful it is in its tragedy, without being struck by debilitating terror.

Tangles is a graphic memoir by writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt, whose mother, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s very young, at 54. Midge’s disease progresses over the next 6 years, and her family (and towards the end, caregivers) care for her as best as they can. Sensing that she is slowly losing her mother, Leavitt begins to take notes and draw sketches to remember her mother before and during her illness.

I often felt like Harriet the Spy, or, in darker moments, like a vulture hovering and waiting for Mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve, even as she slipped away from me. Sometimes she would pull on the page or grab my pen as I tried to write. The pen would skid and make a mark and I’d label the mark: “Mom moved my pen”. I wanted to keep every trace of her.

When my son was born, like many other mothers and fathers, I wanted to capture his every moment. I have little scribbles in my diaries from those years that tell me on which date exactly he made his own little joke for the first time, his cute mispronunciations, the first time he smiled, ate sweet potato, or used words like ‘disappointed’. I like to read them and relive my joy, and feel all the love rush over me, right down to my toes and finger tips. These are little milestone moments that mark his progress, as he learned to think, pay attention, speak, laugh, and dress himself. Tangles, infinitely sad as my diary is jubilant, is also a memoir of progress, the cruel march of the disease, a heartbreaking journey in reverse, as Midge’s abilities are slowly affected, and she stops writing, talking, dressing or feeding herself.

Some things became precious to me, like her poetic mistakes.

Sarah starts by briefly describing her mother’s family and childhood, and draws a picture of a vibrant, passionate, nature-loving and kind kindergarten teacher. Since Midge starts to show signs of the disease at only 52, her family mistakes them for menopause, or stress. She is often confused, forgetful, moody, and angry. Once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Midge’s deterioration is steady and relentless. As she becomes a shell of her former self, and assumes a different identity, her relationship with her closest family members shifts as they assume new roles.

(Sarah): Waaah! I want my mommy!

As she forgets to read and write, so does she forget to keep clean. Sarah writes of being embarrassed by her mother’s smelly clothes and breath, but soon realizes that her mother’s deterioration will present greater challenges that call for a lot more strength.

(Mom): I’ve lost all my sweetness


Me: Are you OK, Mom?

Mom: No. I just can’t tell what is and isn’t.


Me: Oh, Mom, I thought you were sleeping.

Mom: I don’t know if I am or not.

A few months after moving into a nursing home, Midge, who by now isn’t walking or talking, becomes weaker, stops eating, and dies, although she had stopped living years ago.

Sarah’s drawings and writings are remarkably candid, as she tries to capture moments of joy, and pieces of her mother as she really was, amidst all the anger and sadness.

Heartbreakingly beautiful, Tangles is a testament to the power of the graphic format.

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In the antithesis of common notions of diplomatic style and sophistications, Hashemi-Samareh [senior advisor to the president] believed that Iranian diplomats’ trousers could not sport sharp creases, for if they did, it was surely a sign that the diplomats were neglecting their thrice-daily obligatory prayers, which comprise repetitive standing, kneeling, and bowing gestures.

– The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd

Although I have ventured into Iran through books, my explorations so far have always been through the eyes of Iranian (or Iranian-American) women, touching upon what it means to be female in Iran, and sometimes about what it means to be a part of the minority (Jewish or Christian), and always in the context of Iran’s post-revolutionary climate. While these books, which I’ve enjoyed reading…

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside an Iranian Prison

Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

…mostly dealt with the struggles of Iranians, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd, attempts to capture the character of Iran and Iranians. He hopes that his book…

…through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflections, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.

Majd, a non-resident Iranian, at the very offset, tries to establish credibility about his understanding of all things Iranian – he was born into a family of Iranian diplomats, living and studying abroad. When he says…

In 2004 and 2005 I spent several weeks in Iran as a journalist, and in 2007 I spent almost two months living in Tehran, working on what was to become the manuscript.

…I have to take his word for it and assume that this book was not the result of these several weeks and two months the author spent in Iran, but informed by his inherent knowledge of contemporary (and historical) life in Iran. I also hope that his status as a privileged Iranian-American did not impact his interactions with Iranians, who “viewed the Iranian-Americans as a privileged lot – Iranians who lived abroad in luxury and who suffered none of the travails of living and struggling day to day under a difficult system, as domestic dissidents and political activists do, but who nonetheless felt they had a right to opinions on the future of Iran” (although Majd does grow to a beard to disguise his living in the secular West).

Majd’s writing, though heavy with long-winded sentences, is descriptive, and he uses many examples to discuss the subtleties of social concepts that would be quite difficult for a foreigner to understand. The unique Shia Islam atmosphere, together with a sense of historical persecution, by Arab invaders, followers of Sunni Islam, to imperial oppression, and more recent antagonism with the United States, colors much of the fundamental beliefs and feelings of Iranians. I did appreciate Majd’s efforts to illustrate, with many vivid examples, the uniquely Persian social ritual of ta’arouf – a “great national trait…the exaggerated politesse, modesty, and self-deprecation” that involves endless back and forth niceties, in an unusual game of one-upmanship. Majd also offers his perspective on Iran’s political landscape and ponders the possibility of a uniquely Islamic version of democracy.

While discussing race consciousness in multi-ethnic Iran, which is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Majd brings up a point that is especially interesting to me:

But some secular Persian intellectuals will not only exhibit racism towards Arabs or other minorities but reserve a special hatred for Ayatollah Khomeini, not just because he founded the Islamic Republic, but because to them he wasn’t even Persian. Since his paternal grandfather was an Indian who immigrated to Iran in the early nineteenth century, some Iranians feel that his “tainted” blood means that a true Persian was not at the helm of the revolution, the most momentous event in their country’s modern history, good or bad. And soon after the revolution, when the time came to change the symbol of Iran on its flag from the lion and the sub, Khomeini himself chose a symbol among those submitted by artists – a stylized “Allah” – which his opponents, at least the more race-conscious ones, continue to insist bears a remarkable similarity to the symbol of the Sikhs.

…today when Iranian exiles and even some inside Iran want to disparage him, they sometimes refer to him as Hindi (which happened to be his grandfather’s surname but it is also Persian for “Indian”).

Naturally, being Indian, this intrigues me, as does the fact that Hindi and Farsi have so many common words, but sound completely different.

Majd’s work is certainly illuminating, and in reading about social and cultural mores that constitute Iranian life, I certainly learned something new. Utterly fascinating, overused as it is, describes this book well. I would, however, also like an Iranian’s perspective on the picture that Majd paints

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