Tag Archive: Review 10

An unexpected late-in-life love affair…

Today’s book is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Having read way too many thick tomes in the last few weeks I decided that I needed something lighter and with a happy ending, and I was delighted to find that in Simonson’s book. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful British comedy of manners that realistically depicts love between two mature adults and all of the difficulties of old age (including petulant adult children, the death of one’s peers, etc.)

Major Pettigrew is a retired British army officer who comes from a long line of officers who served the Empire (back when there was an Empire.) He is a man of fastidious good manners, taste, and who has a penchant for dry one-liners. He is rooted in tradition and propriety, and the world around him often offends him with its lack of these essential qualities. The story gets started with the death of the Major’s brother, which in a turn of events, leads to his friendship with the widowed neighborhood Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. The Major, a widower himself, takes to Mrs. Ali immediately, as he find her a woman of incredible taste who shares his love of books and a friendship (and possibly more) begins to take form.

The Major, however, has an unfortunately self-centered adult son, while Mrs. Ali shares her shop with her quiet, more religiously-minded nephew. This is all set in a small British town, which quickly begins to notice the affection between the old Major and Mrs. Ali, and hilarity (and some sadness) ensues.

Both extended  families (of Mrs. Ali and the Major) are portrayed with just enough comedy and human frailty to make them seem very real. The gossipy nature of the town and the townspeople is also authentically portrayed.  Simonson’s humor rounds out the Major’s dry, curmudgeonly nature perfectly. As a main character he is loveable in that crusty old man sort of way, but what is also amazing is how deftly the author portrays love between two mature characters.

Mrs. Ali and the Major are not young people who can just abandon convention and the expectations of their families to the wind. They come from different cultures, and Simonson deftly portrays the British uneasiness about the Southeast Asian immigrants in their midst. Yet the book comes across as not political, but honest in its portrayal, and throughout it all you cannot help rooting for the Major– a man who loves his country, his tea, and his right to shoot the ducks on the neighboring Lord’s manor– but a man who is good and honorable, and is able to see beyond the surface issues that the town (and his son) set their tongues wagging about.

Twists and turns happen. Hearts are broken, and a favored antique gun (gifted by a Maharaja no less) meets an untimely end, but the book has a happy ending. As sweet as it is, it is not conventional or saccharine. Instead it is honest, and very, very funny and wise.  In Simonson’s world, true love is not for the young, but for the old, who have finally sorted things out. This little passage between the Major and Mrs. Ali’s nephew Abdul Wahid pretty much sums it up.

“You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really know what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

A sage observation from the Major. Love is funny that way– how it often comes from nowhere and hits you between the eyes and wrecks havoc on a life that you thought you had well-planned out. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a book of gentle humor, wisdom and love. I throughly enjoyed it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Playing Politics with an Epidemic

Today’s book is And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts’s book is a masterwork of journalistic writing and activism. Twenty-five years have passed since it was published, and it still remains a classic. Shilts’s book focuses on the early years of the AIDS epidemic– the time period when people did not realize they even had an epidemic on their hands. It begins in an eerie manner, with a young Scandinavian doctor coming back from practicing medicine in central Africa in the last 1970s and dying of an unknown and devastating disease. From there, Shilts shifts his focus to the United States, chiefly the gay populations in San Francisco and New York, where the epidemic begins to take shape.

Shilts pulls no punches in this book. He unleashes a righteous fury at all the failures that allowed AIDS to take hold in both the United States and the world– the politicians who refused to grant funding for research, the doctors who were baffled by a disease that did not fit into a neat “box,” some members of the gay community for their wariness of the medical establishment, local governments for failing to recognize what was going on (especially the blood banks– many people died because of their refusal to face the facts), the US Government and CDC, and the infighting among certain researchers that slowed down the chances of getting a grip on the epidemic.

In the early years there were four mains groups of people who got AIDS, Haitians, hemophiliacs, Intravenous Drug abusers and Gays. And in the early years it was seem primarily as a “gay disease,” even though there was evidence that it could be spread among heterosexuals and through blood donations. For this reason, finding help for sufferers was an uphill battle, as the disease spread among members of society that were seen as “undesirable.” Almost everyone involved played politics with the disease, or were the victims of politics. What astounded me in the reading of this book was how it was so easy for the American people and government to deny the humanity of certain groups of people. Almost as if gay folks and drug abusers deserved this horrifying plague.  As Shilts puts it ” Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that a search for the AIDS virus should have started sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much, more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late. Instead people died. Tens of thousands of them.”

People died because people played politics with their lives in an astounding number of ways. Yet, heroes did emerge during the epidemic. The doctors who latched onto the new virus and kept trying to untangle it despite cuts to their funding and pressures from hospital administrators. The City of San Francisco for trying to curb the disease through innovative health measures (the City played politics too, but it did a heck of a lot better than other places with large populations of AIDS sufferers.) The gay community for fighting for help and for caring for those who were dying. And other, at times unlikely allies come to light, such as conservatives Orrin Hatch and J Everett Koop. Hatch fought for legislation to keep AIDS testing confidential, and Koop was the first member of the Reagan Administration to outline a multi-pronged,  sensible and pragmatic attack on the virus–much to the dismay of many of his more conservative supporters (the administration had muzzled him for five years, keeping him from speaking on the health crisis.)

The book is huge (600+) pages but it reads easily, almost like a mystery in the early portions. It contains a massive amount of information, names and dates, but it is a compelling read. While Stilts writes only on the AIDS epidemic you can’t help but wonder what would happen is some other new disease would pop up that was just as deadly– one likes to think that politicking and infighting would not ensue within the government and public health facilities that are supposed to protect us, but no doubt they would.

Last summer I was in San Francisco visiting a friend who is a doctor when we walked into an airy, bright store that sold all sorts of neat gift-shop sorts of things. My friend said to me quietly “This shop raises money to help care for those with AIDS and to help fund research locally. They also sell lots of neat stuff. Whenever we need a unique gift for someone we try to buy here. They do good work.”  San Francisco (and New York  as well as other cities) is a city that lost a generation of young people who did not have to die. The early years of the AIDS epidemic are fading from public memory, mainly because in developed countries the disease can be treated more as a chronic condition if you are lucky and have the means. People now talk about AIDS being an “African problem,” which it most definitely is, but few Americans want to realize that it remains a problem within their own country.  People still don’t want to talk about it or face the reality that is a terrifying disease that is transmitted sexually.

Read Shilts’s book. Read it to realize what happens when you mix a disease with ignorance, hate, and politics. Read it to understand that we are all human beings and as a collective humanity that we all suffer when a fellow human suffers from this disease. Read it so that we don’t forget, and so that we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.