Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Going Home

Voyage and Return is one of the seven basic plots of literature. Odysseus, Gulliver, Alice in Wonderland, Orpheus, Dorothy Gale – the list goes on and on. But when I picture a hero/heroine returning home I don't normally imagine that home to be Detroit. But that's where Scott Lasser's characters wash ashore.

David returns to help his father deal with his mother as she slips into dementia. Carolyn comes back for the funeral of her older sister Natalie, David's high school flame. But they both also stumble towards the realization that they are looking for a way to restart their lives, and returning to their hometown seems to make that possible. But Detroit? It's a city of high crime rates and abandoned neighborhoods. Hardly the background conducive to a blooming romance. And David's attempt to 'save' thirteen year old drug dealer Marlon further complicates matters.

Lasser knowledge of the geography and psyche of Detroit makes the story feel grounded and authentic, even if the plot twists are sometimes a little forced. It's ultimately a story about second chances, for the characters and for the city itself.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Travels of AIDS

As a health care professional who worked in San Francisco hospitals in the 1980's when gay men first were admitted with a mystery disease, I thought I knew something about AIDS. Daniel Halperin and Craig Timberg's book, Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It adds so much more.  They describe how genetic studies have traced the virus to equatorial forests in Cameroon, how and when the virus was likely transmitted to humans, and more importantly, how it was transported to the colonial city of Leopoldsville. There it was free to break out and spread widely, carried to Haiti by returning Haitian temporary workers and then to the US via the gay community which vacationed in Haiti.

The book's primary focus is Africa, however, where heterosexual AIDS has been overwhelmingly disastrous.  The West contributed by opening Africa to new colonial cities and blazing routes through areas which never before had been connected. Missionaries discouraged polygamy but instead new patterns of multiple sexual partners developed, which fostered rampant spread of the virus.

The authors then describe how Western AIDS groups have focused on preventions which proved ineffective while not supporting more accurately targeted homegrown efforts. Halperin is a very strong advocate of circumcision, which has been shown to decrease HIV transmission by 60%, but was not initially supported by the aid groups. Africans have been open to it, since it was and still is practiced by some tribes. Reading reviews of this book on Amazon, I was amazed to see vigorous attacks by anti-circumcision advocates. Just the facts, folks.

Because patterns of sexual contacts are so different in Western countries from those in Africa, heterosexual AIDS epidemics there never have been likely. This is clearly illustrated. And there's so much more.  It's a fascinating book, despite the undertone of West bashing and the sense of crusading by Halperin. Read it and learn.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sentimental Journey

Why would a successful New York lawyer leave his wife and daughter and vanish without a trace? That's the question that Jan-Philipp Sendker asks in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. That's the mystery Julia Win is trying to solve when, four years after his disappearance, she discovers a love letter her father wrote many years earlier to a woman in Burma. He would never discuss the first twenty years of his life which he spent in Burma, so she reasons that the answers to her questions might lie there, perhaps with the woman addressed in the unsent letter, the mysterious Mi Mi in the tiny village of Kalaw.

Julia travels to Kalaw and meets a mysterious man named U Ba who seems to know all about her. The bulk of the book is a series of flashbacks in which U Ba tells Julia the story her father Tin's life. It's a story full of hardship, sadness, hope, endurance and love. It is frankly sentimental and I am frankly not, so the soap opera, 'if only', aspects of the story wore me down. Also, it's translated from German and seemed a little heavy on cliches.

Those who enjoy fairy tales about star-crossed lovers will be drawn to this book - there's a kind of operatic grandeur to the story.   And there are some beautiful descriptions of the natural world in the remote Burmese countryside. But I'm afraid my disbelief just refused to suspend itself.