Thursday, August 22, 2019

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

Reviewed by James Baur       

        Buried Child is a Pulitzer prize winning play written by Sam Shepard that seeks again to tackle the issue of the American Dream and its potential downfalls. Taking place during an economic downturn and the supposed degradation of morality in America, Shepard’s play puts an interesting spin on the typical family drama. What makes this play stand out amongst others is that instead of using larger-than-life caricatures of familiar personality types to express its message, the play throws a curveball and makes each character a sort of inversion on the typical “nuclear family” roles the reader is likely to expect. The father is powerless and lazy, the mother is hardly ever present, the children have failed to follow in the “family business” as per tradition – and to top it all off, a layer of mystery is added as we find out that seemingly everyone has forgotten about the existence of Vince, one of the youngest members of the family. What follows is a brief read that is very engaging and often confusing – but in the right kind of way, where you are likely to read the entire thing in one sitting just to unwrap the tightly packed family secrets kept just out of reach.

                Despite the depressing subject matter and setting, Buried Child’s writing is often humorous in a unique way. In the opening scene, the old and depressed patriarch Dodge has trouble hearing his wife, causing lines to be repeated and frustration to arise between the characters. Moments like this not only serve to emphasize the tedium and growing anger in the family’s life, but also are great for a laugh as the written font gradually increases in size to convey the two shouting, for example. The genius of Buried Child’s comedy is that it always is presented in a way that highlights the depression the characters are going through, so it isn’t always just cheap laughs – it’s trying to get at a main idea, too. Another example is Dodge and his son Tilden’s total fixation on ears of corn. Dodge simply doesn’t believe that corn could be found anywhere nearby, but Tilden insists that it’s right outside. This back-and-forth goes on just long enough to become humorous, while also being reflective of the mindset one may have during a time of extreme economic struggle. 

                Buried Child is a unique read that is well worth the attention of any fan of drama. Taking the traditional “nuclear family” story and turning it inside-out with an added layer of mystery, it never fails to grab the reader’s attention. The play doesn’t use any archaic language and is overall easy to follow provided you read it carefully. As always, I would recommend seeing it performed via YouTube or some other medium if you enjoy it, as seeing things played out in person adds a further understanding to the events that unfold. In the end, the story may not resolve itself in the way you expect, but it certainly does provide a fresh scenario that allows for deep critical analysis and interpretation on the reader’s part.

James Baur is a student at Valparaiso University, in Indiana who lives in Bristol when not away at school. While he studies Japanese and Accounting, he has always had a strong interest in literature and drama, especially classic works.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Nevermore: Lost Garden, Sensitive Crimes, Heart Goes Last, We Fed An Island

Reported by Christy

In Helen Humphreys’ The Lost Garden, Gwen Davis is put in charge of the farming of potatoes for the war effort. The women she is supervising, however, are much more interested in the Canadian soldiers stationed at the estate. In order to gain control, Davis arranges frequent evening dances where her girls can mingle with the soldiers. In doing so, she discovers feelings she’s never felt before, and she also stumbles on a hidden, forgotten garden with its own secrets. Our reader found this book “pleasant” and a “quick read."

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Department of Sensitive Crimes, no case is too small or weird to tackle for a Swedish team of criminal investigators. Cases include a stabbing of a man in the back of the knee and a woman’s missing imaginary boyfriend. Our reader enjoyed this novel, calling it “too fun.”

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last tells the story of Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car and trying to survive amidst societal collapse. The couple decides to participate in the Positron Project where they will have jobs, food, and a nice, clean house for alternating months. Every other month they will become prisoners in the Positron prison system. The couple is fine with this arrangement until Charmaine makes a decision that will ultimately put Stan’s life in danger. Our reader found this book to be “frightening.”

Mere days after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Chef Jose Andres traveled to the island to help the only way who knew how: by feeding people. Andres tells his story in We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. Our reader called Andres “passionate” and found his story “inspiring.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold

Reviewed by Brenda G.
Arnold, Catharine. Pandemic 1918: eyewitness accounts from the greatest medical holocaust in modern history. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2018.

The Spanish flu. The flu epidemic that killed more people than died in World War I. A true pandemic. As the subtitle, shown above, declares, a medical holocaust. What were the contributing factors that led to this global epidemic? Where did it begin? Could it happen again? This book examines these questions and more.

The author begins by exploring the known history of influenza and the epidemics it has spawned. Catharine Arnold notes that mentions of what seems to have been flu date to ancient times, to Hippocrates in the Greece of 412 BCE. The word “influenza” appears to have originated with an Italian concern for the “influence of the stars” upon illness, around the year 1500. Incidents of flu epidemics, affecting peasants and nobility alike, occurred across the world repeatedly. None, however, has been found to equal the impact of the flu epidemic of 1918-1919. The author endeavors to address this impact upon individuals from various socio-economic strata, focusing upon the personal stories available. One set of the author’s grandparents succumbed to this flu. She chooses to use the term “Spanish Lady,” one often applied to this epidemic, perhaps because Spanish newspapers were not bound by wartime censorship rules and could discuss the disease.

The author proceeds through a discussion of what, in retrospect, were clearly early cases of the flu in 1917 European soldiers.  She them moves to a vast military encampment in France, peopled by English and French at that point, with a vast medical complex. One of the soldiers she highlights does not survive, developing the deadly bronchial or pneumonia-like complication of the flu. Another, a nurse, does not develop that complication and survives to write a memoir of her experiences.

She then moves to Haskell County, Kansas, where the flu, at one point, killed 3 of its 18 victims, sparking fear by striking the young and healthy. This death rate of 16.6% represents a surprisingly high rate in such a small rural community. The author reports traffic at the time between Haskell County and Fort Riley, Kansas, a military training camp with many young recruits. The young men unwittingly spread the disease.

The well-told and well-investigated tale continues its documentation of the spread of this disease. Viruses were unknown at the time. Influenza was believed to be bacterial. Army camps provided a perfect breeding ground for influenza, packing many young men into a confined space where they breathed air that was common to all of them, and in that and other ways, they shared their infections. 

Among the interesting facts shared by the author is that flu epidemics often occur in at least two waves, with the second being more virulent than the first. At this point in modern life, we have no common point of reference. No one epidemic has killed so many around the world in recent memory. Computer models estimate that a “modern-day Spanish flu event would result in 188,000-337,00 deaths in the United States alone.” The scientific and medical communities want us to be prepared for the likely occurrence of such an event caused by this, or perhaps another, frequently mutating virus. 

This book, though dense with fact, is also replete with stories of people from the time, including those of survivors and victims of the “Spanish Lady.” It is both readable and enjoyable. I was fascinated by the level of detail, whether anecdotal or scientific. Kudos to the author for an excellent job.