In this post I talk about American War by Omar El Akkad, and The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs.
The day after the January 2017 inauguration of the criminal buffoon now occupying (well, when he’s not off stealing taxpayer dollars by vacationing at one of his own properties) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I discovered a rash on my upper right arm. Since then, it has covered my entire body from the neck down. I have run an obstacle course of medical providers and insurance hell, and I am no closer to an answer than I was in January — in fact, in many ways, I am worse. I cannot help but see my decline and inability to heal as reflection of the damage being done to the country and the world by the gop and its illegitimate siege of the presidency, achieved by vote fixing, voter suppression, russian intervention, and decades of hate and fear mongering. So, reading a dystopian novel about the results a few decades from now of this sort of red vs blue hate in this country, and a memoir about a woman’s living and coping with disease, was both a foolish and an instructive thing to do. Here I am, going.
American War, Omar El Akkad, Hardcover, 333pp, April 2017, Knopf Publishing Group
The venal fomentation of hate and divisiveness which has long been the strategy of the Republican party, has now careened out of control into the surreal ascendance of a sociopathic, narcissistic moron to the presidency; a man who will stoop to any level to aggrandize himself and gain more power, riches, and worship, who lies with the ease others of us breathe, and who encourages civil disobedience and violence, encouraging a class war — a conflict built mostly on myth, fictions, and unfounded bigotries and fear of “other” — using the tactics of fascist authoritarians throughout time to distract the people from his pillaging of the country, from his complete ineptitude at and disinterest in bringing prosperity and union to the people he is meant to serve and lead.
Interpret and project from these signs and omens and realities what a future might be like if we continue along this path of rupture, acrimony, and animosity, and you will arrive at the place where Omar El Akkad’s sadly prescient novel, American War, begins and ends.
Which might be why it took me almost a week to finish it. There is no other reason: the writing was very, very good; the plotting and pace excellent; the protagonist, Sarat Chestnut, drawn with complicated, fascinating detail. But, the fact that less than a year ago the goings on, atrocities, and unhappy endings of this novel would have seemed an outrageous, impossible dystopian take-off, but now, since November of 2016, seem not only possible, but likely, made this — for me — a very difficult read despite all it has to recommend it. So, be warned.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2017, Simon and Schuster
Being in the eighth frustrating and now sort of terrifying month of dealing with an illness that remains undiagnosed, increasing amounts of “symptoms” which may or may not be related (or, even, symptoms) — since no one seems to know what it is I have, and a now four week long effort to get an appointment with a rheumatologist who will accept my insurance and perhaps be able to explain my floating joint pains which I thought were the beginnings of arthritis but now, like my digestive system explosions may, I’m told with worried looks by the dermatologist now seemingly in charge of my case, may be connected to the mystery illness — no, not even an appointment, I am still waiting for a referral to a mystery rheumatologist one state away! — and despite that lack of diagnosis and referral, taking a medicine normally prescribed for malaria which may with extended use cause macular degeneration, my long-time biggest nightmare as it partially blinded both my aunt and mother, and which requires twice a year visits to an opthalmologist, visits which no one seems to be able to tell me whether or not are to be covered by my insurance; being in this morass of often feeling like hell, fighting the depression of not knowing, not getting answers, and being treated like a second class citizen because of my insurance — because had I better coverage (which I cannot, could not ever afford) I would have LONG AGO been referred, seen, treated — and KNOWING I am STILL better off than a lot of people in this richest country in the world where adequate healthcare is STILL BEING DEBATED AND DENIED — well, perhaps this wasn’t the best time to read a memoir by a woman who had terminal cancer, who died before the book went to print.
Then again, perhaps it was.
Nina Riggs writes about her illness — no, wrong, Nina Riggs writes about living a life, loving a family and friends, and being fully alive while dealing with the medical establishment’s responses to a body out of whack and the knowledge that her death is imminent.
She is funny. She is honest. She is brutal. She is terrified. She is hopeful. She is sad. She is angry. She is exactly the kind of literate, delightful, upfront, caring, warm, witty, audacious, fascinating, embracing and embraceable person with whom one wants to be best friends.
Her journey from “one tiny spot” of the kind “no one dies from” to stage four cancer, during which her mother and another dear friend die of cancer, is fascinating and instructive. The writing is exquisite and powerful, honest and moving without ever being maudlin or self-pitying — both of which are my go-to reactions to my little medical issues, so I was terribly shamed by the forthright and courageous manner with which Nina Riggs lived until she died.
And managing to write about it — the effects of the illness, the psychological and emotional process of trying to deal with the knowledge one is going to miss one’s children’s growing up, dealing with the decay of her body and her energies — with such spirited candor; I found it miraculous.
By the time I reached her husband’s Afterword, I was sobbing and renewed. And awestruck. Would that I could deal with any of the petty annoyances of my life with some small portion of the grace and insight with which Nina Riggs lived her life.
Read this book, not as a guide to how to die, but a primer on how to live.
And so, there it is, or, was; the dystopian novel affirmed all my worst fears and worries about the world in which we are living, where we are heading, while the memoir that ends in death, inspired my best self, a sloughing off of my self-pitying, poor me energies and a determination to move through whatever time I have with more grace and good humor.
Who knew? Not me. Which is lovely, always, to have more to learn and space of self into which to grow, and so, here I am, going (and growing). Oddly enough, about an hour from now, to another doctor appointment.
So, so long for today dear ones, much Love and Light to you.