This installment: a bleak, strange DVD; a renegade RN—true story; a DVD with a transgender theme; extracurricular activity in academe; hard-luck folks get caught up in a peculiar concept; and Siberia in the 1900s.
I’m drawn to bleak and strange and this Russian film fits that description beautifully. It’s quiet, muted, slow and haunting. Miron’s beautiful wife Tanya dies unexpectedly and he decides to put to her rest following the rituals of their obscure Merya tribe. He enlists an employee, Aist, who’s also a writer, to help him. Off they go with Tanya wrapped in a blanket and a cage of buntings riding shotgun. (Aist had picked them up at the marketplace because they reminded him of his youth.) Along the way we learn fascinating tidbits about their relationship like this one: he washed her in vodka. An almost monochromatic winter landscape, lots of time in the car, not much “action,” but so much resonance.
The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
Subtitled A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder. Charles Cullen, RN, seems like such a model employee that he’s featured in a brochure to attract new staff. But death rates soar when he’s on the job—or jobs, since he’s often “let go” but then finds another position without delay. Hard to believe, but it’s indeed true. The scariest part of this book is the various hospitals’ reaction: look the other way because god forbid there be a scandal. Other nurses had their suspicions as he often sequestered himself with patients not on his schedule, but none spoke out. Finally two detectives got on the case and nailed him but it was a tortuous trail, obscured by the passage of time and the institutions’ resistance. Graeber has a hard-boiled style yet treats Cullen with a kind of compassion, though the reason he killed so many folks (possibly up to 400 in a decade!) isn’t exactly clear. A heavy dose of horror fascination for those like me who hanker after it. Certainly makes me think twice about getting sick…
This DVD fell into my hands and I was entranced. The theme: transgender in the heartland, but the underlying message: the power of love. Roy, a solid middle-aged guy, is married to Irma (played by Jessica Lange). He collapses at their 25th wedding anniversary party and then admits to her that he’s been trapped in the “wrong body” and is determined to become a woman. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down well at his farm-machinery workplace, in their church, and with their two children. Elements of comedy amidst the tension, especially his struggles with wardrobe choices. When Irma defiantly tells her minister who gives her “permission to separate” that she won’t leave him because “he’s her heart,” cynical old me teared up and exulted. A lovely film.
My Education by Susan Choi
Rebecca is in her first year of graduate studies, an A student but also a bit of a wild girl. She bunks with Dutra, an eccentric, hard-living medical student, but stops sharing his mattress when another relationship trumps it. This time it’s a professor’s wife, Martha, and their affair becomes so all-consuming Rebecca drops out of school. Complications galore, including Marta’s husband’s reputation as a roué, and their newborn baby. Obsession, huge emotional pain, and daily messes pile up until it all comes crashing down. From the distance of time we learn that Rebecca climbed out, made a good life for herself, and finally brings together the couple that was meant to be. Very absorbing, and a good look at what my late husband John dubbed “mammalian follies.”
The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson
This novel begins by introducing us to a series of hard-luck folks, chapter by chapter. Sean and his father are living in their foreclosed house in Sebastopol, scraping by. Linnea arrives at her teacher-father Art’s; his ex back in Cleveland can’t deal with the trauma they’ve experienced. His neighbor Christie, a nurse, ends up taking care of a very rich, eccentric old woman who creates the project of the title because she wants to do something nice and names Christie to spearhead it. All the characters come together, kind of, as this screwy, ill conceived concept manifests. Meanwhile Sean’s father becomes a magnet for more bad luck. Bay Area setting, including a grim episode in my own town, Bolinas. I like this author’s previous books a lot and was excited when this one arrived. However, despite being initially engaging, it didn’t completely satisfy in the long run. But the individual stories and the familiar settings kept me reading and I’m glad I did.
Your Mouth is Lovely by Nancy Richler
Siberia in the early 1900s. Miriam’s been there since she was 15 after she killed a gendarme. Growing up in a small village, she’d been living in a dark fairy tale: dead mother, wicked stepmother, no future there. She ends up in Bialystock, falls in with revolutionaries, gets pregnant but manages to send the baby off to Canada before she’s imprisoned. A rich depiction of historical events through the eyes of a girl who just wants to stay alive--ideologies be damned initially--but she eventually gets caught up in them. I always appreciate books that introduce me an era from the inside, as it were, and this one does it well.
Back next Monday