#42 ~ The Madonnas of Leningrad

November 5, 2007 at 4:17 am | Posted in Books, Culture, Family, Historical Fiction, LIfe, Post-Partum Depression | Leave a comment
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The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

What happens to the elderly people while they are experiencing dementia or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease? Debra Dean explores this question in her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad. It tells the story of Marina, an elderly woman who emigrated to the United States from Russia after World War II, and her family as they deal with her declining mental capacity. While honestly portraying the difficulties of caring for such a loved one, it is a novel full of beauty, solace, and hope.

When Marina slips away from her family in the present, she relives a significant time in her youth. Her early adulthood coincided with World War II. She lived in Leningrad during the long winter within which Germany’s offensive left her city in rubble without an adequate amount of food. Bombings left her apartment building partially destroyed. She lived with her Aunt and Uncle in the basement of the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad’s great art museum. This is where Marina goes – back to a time filled with art in the midst of starvation and death.

It is interesting how the people in Leningrad, including Marina, coped with the isolation, cold, and starvation – they obsessed about one thing. For Marina, it was memorizing the Hermitage as it was before they took all of the paintings down and shipped them to (supposed) safety. As part of her mental tour of the museum, Marina also memorizes paintings – mostly of Madonnas – that had been hidden prior to Marina’s arrival.

I have by no means experienced the physical and mental suffering that those people must have experienced, but when I am in a place in my life where I am having difficulty coping, I turn to those same types of obsessive thoughts. When I was in the midst of PPD, I would constantly relive Allison’s birth – most specifically replaying it in my head to identify those things that I could have done differently (read better). I would be interested to know how prevalent it is to revert inward like that.

It was also interesting to read this book from the perspective of Marina’s husband and daughter. How difficult it must be to have to care for a grown adult as if she were a toddler. If that weren’t bad enough, to have this woman whom you have loved with all your heart not even recognize you. The scene at the wedding reception was especially heartbreaking. My Uncle Ryan, my father’s oldest brother, is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I remember him as being young, intelligent, and vibrant. Now he seems even more feeble in many ways than his 90-year-old father. I hope that he can find a place somewhere in his soul to bring him comfort as he slips further away from us. This is the hope that Dean’s book has brought to me.

The Madonna’s of Leningrad is a poignant book about the life of the mind. Still also, it is a book about art and the meaning it brings. I believe the human elements of this story make this book a worthwhile read for everyone. If you love art and architecture, the descriptions of the Hermitage Museum and the art is contained will be an added bonus.

#14 ~ The Cider House Rules

April 4, 2007 at 6:48 pm | Posted in Adoption, Books, Culture, My Life with Books, Reading | 2 Comments
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The Cider House Rules by John Irving

Of the 13 books that have preceded this, The Cider House Rules has been by far the hardest to read. The first 100 pages were more difficult than I had imagined. I never wanted to know what the inside of a uterus feels/sounds like when a D&C is completed successfully. I would imagine no one really does. At one point during Dr. Wilbur Larch’s journey from OB/GYN to OB/GYN and abortionist, I wanted to stop reading it. I decided that to honestly meet the challenge I had to finish every book I start. This isn’t about reading 52 books I will enjoy. For me, as a fast reader, there’s no challenge in that. So, I finished it. It’s a sad, sad book.

The protagonist, Homer Wells, begins life as an orphan as St. Cloud’s in Maine in the early mid-1900s. This is the orphanage in which Dr. Larch practices medicine. Attempts to adopt Homer failed. Homer preferred to be at St. Cloud’s. In order to be “of use,” Dr. Larch makes Homer his apprentice. Homer has a natural talent for medicine and successfully delivers a women suffering from sever eclampsia. During the course of his studies of Grey’s Anatomy and through dissecting adult female and infant cadavers, Homer comes to believe that the unborn have souls. He confronts Dr. Larch and refuses to be “of use” to him when he’s performing those procedures. Shortly thereafter, he leaves St. Cloud’s with Wally and Candy, a rich couple who traveled from the coast to get an abortion.

While living at Ocean View Orchards, Homer quickly falls in love with Candy and becomes an expert in farming an apple orchard. Dr. Larch, on the other hand, planned for the day that Homer would return and take over all aspects of “the Lord’s work.” St. Cloud’s Board of Directors was increasingly unhappy with him and as he grows older, the pressure to add staff to oversee all aspects of the orphanage continues to strengthen. He took the name of a deceased orphan and manipulated college and medical school records to make him a doctor. It’s is Dr. Larch’s hope that life experience will lead him back to St. Cloud’s and, if his beliefs cannot be changed, he will feel compelled to provide abortion services in a day and age when it is illegal.

This book is decidedly pro-choice. Still, there is no glorification of the procedure or those who perform them. Abortion is a consequence of the human condition and those who provide those services have their own weaknesses and crosses to bear. Irving took great effort to describe the procedures and its affects accurately. Women carrying the burden of an unplanned pregnancy do not leave the orphanage relieved of their burdens. In fact, Homer observes that their posture makes them look more weighted down. Dr. Larch uses the phrase “products of conception.” Eventually, Homer confronts him about this oversimplification. There is no sugar coating.

I believe that this story took place during World War II purposefully. It illustrated that there are forms of murder deemed as necessary and good by American society. There is no shame in killing the enemy or in losing a child to war. In fact, both may even be considered a duty and an honor. Many states in this country support the death penalty as a means for punishing its most heinous criminals. In both situations, keeping our society safe is found more important than the lives of individuals. Both sides of the abortion debate oversimplify or sugar coat the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. Why are we afraid to address this issue head on and decide, as a society, whether abortion serves the greater good?

Although I believe that Irving intended to end this book with hope, I felt quite the opposite. It seems sad that the best our society has to offer women experiencing an unwanted pregnancy is an abortion, an adoption, or a life as a single parent. Ensuring that all three of those options are available to women does not change the fact that – apparent rewards aside – they all bring about their own pain, feelings of loss, and heartache for everyone involved.

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