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GRIEF ON FILM: My top ten films about grief

A few months ago, my husband and I saw Danny Boyle’s ingeniously plotted Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. It mesmerized and horrified me with its gritty, realistic portrayal of the plight of India’s slum orphans as seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jamal, whose poverty stricken childhood provides him with the answers that help him win 20 million rupees on India’s version of ” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” And then came the last fifteen minutes.  Now I like a Bollywood (or Hollywood) musical as much as the next person.  But in the context of this disturbing film, I found the end—a romantic wrap up and rousing dance number—strangely out of place.  This is how I usually react to feel-good endings tacked on stories purporting to be about grief.  We who’ve taken the grief journey know there can be light within it, but to suggest that it’s easily or quickly found, as many novels and films do, negates the potential for real human growth after tragedy, and contributes to the delegitimizing way we deal with other people’s bereavement. As I wrote in my novel, “Saving Elijah,” “The miracles (that come with grief) are of the deepest truest kind, because those miracles have to do with the giving and the cherishing of our blessings rather than the getting of them or the asking for them.  Miracles of friendship and forgiveness, hope and peace and faith, can always be found by those willing to search, can be found even in the darkest of packages.”

       With that in mind, I wrote a piece for www.opentohope.com on the ten films that I think best illuminate grief without stereotyping, sugarcoating or sentimentality and thus, like all true works of art, tell some real truth about the human condition.  Here’s the first one:

1) The Savages

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins,”The Savages”is a nuanced, closely observed film about a middle-aged brother and sister reckoning with their guilt, responsibility, and ambivalent feelings when their long estranged father develops vascular dementia and has to be placed in a nursing home.  Funny and tragic, with amazing performances by the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings Jon and Wendy, with incredible work by Philip Bosco as their father, Lenny,The Savages lacks a single false moment. It fully and believably conveys complex characters and their tragic situation without trying to impose closure, false hope or catharsis. The film is particularly notable for its frank depiction of the messiness of grief, which itself springs from the complexity and messiness of human relationships. For all its tragedy, it manages to achieve real moments of grace in the only way grace can be achieved in such situations, in small moments of mercy and discovery, with bruising honesty, comedy, pathos, and irony.

More grief on film to come  

Follow up: More Guns, More Death, More Grief

Commenting on my post, “More Guns, More Death, More Grief,” “andthebuddhasaid” (love that moniker) said:

You make great points and are absolutely right, but you didn’t comment on Barack Obama’s support of the Supreme Court’s decision. Apparently he was in whole hearted agreement. Personally I don’t think that this is the decision to measure his stance on gun control, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Well, frankly, I was upset by Obama’s support of the decision, (which came after the post) but not totally shocked. I posted the piece on http://www.dailykos.com, thinking that that supposedly left-leaning community would mostly be in support, and found myself completely under attack by gun nuts, most of them claiming the right to defend themselves in their homes, and saying gun control laws don’t work, in no uncertain terms. Nearly four hundred people weighed in against me, I felt like a sitting duck. (And they call themselves liberals…for shame. Maybe they’re actually Republican plants.) Strict constructionists and others may argue about the original meaning of the Second Amendment and parse the placement of the comma in its words, and argue that such placement means citizens are allowed to own guns, INCLUDING assault weapons, but what I was primarily saying in that post was that two angry teenage boys in a school yard with loaded guns equals more death and grief than two angry teenagers in the same school yard without guns. Give a suicidal individual access to a gun (suicides account for a huge portion of gun deaths, way more than homicides) and see if a momentary urge doesn’t turn into a permanent condition. Compare the homicide rate in the United States of America with its weak gun control laws to other developed countries with strong gun control laws. I’m interested in grief, and more guns means more grief.

If this was about self protection, why not fight for non-lethal methods of self protection?

As for Obama’s position, my guess is that he’ll not appoint judges who are “strict constructionist” or judges obsessed with “original Intent” to the Supreme Court, and while whomever he appoints might agree with the current Court’s current decision on guns, they will not agree on so many other issues that are important to me that there is STILL no choice about whom I will support in this election. John McCain will be a disaster for this country, which has already endured eight years of disaster. Even a few of McCain’s own Republican party admit that he has too volatile a temperament to be President in this volatile world. Here’s a quote from the Huff Post on this:

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. “He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

If Thad Cochran is worried, so am I. Obama, in my opinion, has the kind of mind, focus, conciliatory approach, and even temperament that we sorely need in a volatile world. He is by far the better man. The Presidency is not only about policies; it’s very much about inspiration and vision. McCain has never met a war he didn’t like, and he’s chomping at the bit for more war. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. It seems to me that Senator McCain learned the wrong lessons from his time as a prisoner.

Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

As promised in my last post, here’s my interview with novelist Bernice McFadden, whom I met at a Book and Author Luncheon, and whose novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I found to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. (See my previous post for full review.)
Fran Dorf: Would you tell readers a little about yourself, your background, and how you came to be a writer?

Bernice McFadden: I am the eldest of four children. I was born, raised and still reside in Brooklyn, NY. I am the mother of one grown daughter. I was a shy child and books offered and escape from the real world. I dreamed of becoming a writer at a very early age. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to be. For a while though it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but back in 1999 the God’s smiled down on me and granted the one thing I wished for on every birthday and every star since I was nine years old.

Fran Dorf: Wow. I admire that. I was a “secret” writer in my teens, but even then I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. Question: I admit I found myself more enthralled by the historical story in “Nowhere is a Place” than the contemporary one, although they certainly worked together to tell a larger tale. I especially loved the scenes in which the slaves take over the household of their deranged master. It seems to me that owning slaves would deeply affect the sanity anyway, regardless of how much a society tries to deny the common humanity of people. Can you comment on the origins of this scene? Is this something you invented, or is it based on a real incident or incidents?

Bernice McFadden: When I sit down to write story I start off believing that I know what’s going to happen – I believe I have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve published ten novels to date and each and every time my characters prove me wrong. The characters control the story – I just write down what they show me. I do believe that that particular scene is a tribute to the ancestors that fought against the establishment.. ie. Nat Turner.

Fran Dorf: Well, it’s an amazing tribute. Question: One character, a Native American girl, Nayeli, who is given the name Lou by her master after his dog, takes a large role in the book. I didn’t actually realize that Native Americans were also forced into slavery in America, although I’m certainly not surprised that they were. I assume this interesting nugget is based on truth, but did you know this already or find it out through research? How much research do you do for your novels, and do you research while you are writing the first draft, or before you start, or both?

Bernice: Yes, I was aware that the English enslaved Native Americans in the Carolinas, using them on plantations as well as shipping them off to the Caribbean Islands. I do most of my research as I’m writing the novel.

Fran: Can you comment generally on the relationship of your fiction to your life?

Bernice: For me it is impossible to NOT include some real bits of myself in my fiction. Writing a novel is like a carrying a child – when it’s born it’s going to have your DNA.

Fran: I love the DNA metaphor. I’m always amazed when I hear writers and teachers of writing somehow disparage “autobiographical” novels, or deny that writers use their own lives in their fiction. Question: As a bereaved mother and student of psychology whose last novel was inspired by my loss, I have come to see human beings through a unique lens–the way they incorporate trauma and grief and loss into their lives. I’m always amazed at how deeply these difficult experiences influence personal psychology and one’s personal narrative. In this context, I’m talking about trauma, loss and grief that can be either personal or, for want of a better word, ancestral. I wonder if you might comment on this, whether it has any validity for you, how your own losses as I’ve just defined them affect who you are and what you write about.

Bernice: I’m very interested in grief. I study it in myself and the people around me. This interest is certainly present in my work. I feel that I do my best work when I’m grieving or have the bottomless sense of loss and sadness – I pour my emotions into the story and which in turn seems to lend a certain level of authentication.

Fran: Yes, I study it too, and I agree that emotional authenticity is key. We must always write from a place of grief and loss or what we turn out will be sappy or sentimental. Which is one of the reasons I call myself The Bruised Muse. Question: I’m fascinated by the myriad ways novelists go about writing novels. One novelist told me he wrote things down on cards and pasted them on his bulletin board. John Irving insists he always knows the ending. As a writer who never made an outline in her life and always writes (okay, wrote) fiction to find out what’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that. Can you talk a little about your process?

Bernice: The first time I ever outlined a book was a few months back. My agent suggested I do so because we were shopping a partial manuscript. I sent him three pages, which was of course unacceptable to him. Before it was all said and done I had cried, cussed and slammed all of the doors in my house in order to keep from breaking all of the mirrors! We went back and forth so much that I felt like I was writing a dissertation – but fifteen pages later I was proud of what I had done (even though the story is sure to take a different path) and grateful to my agent.

Fran: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What training or study did you undertake in order to become one? Do you think compelling storytellers are born, can be taught, or both?

Bernice: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. I took two writing classes at Fordham University back in ’95 and ’96. I do believe you either have it you don’t.

Fran: Actually, I agree, although I think you can learn to use the tools of the craft more effectively. Aside from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who are some of your favorite writers?

Bernice: Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Stephen King. Junot Diaz has a found a new fan in me as well as British author, Christopher Wilson.

Fran: I’m glad you love Stephen King. Me too. I love Diaz’s short stories but haven’t tried his novel, nor am I familiar with Christopher Wilson.
Bernice: Christopher Wilson wrote a novel called Cotton — unlike any story I’ve ever read — every one I’ve recommended the book to loved it. Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao– FABULOUS — I loved it — I felt like I was reading it on a treadmill — his rogue writing style left me breathless.
Fran: Breathless? How can I resist that? I shall have to read them, as well as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove, and the complete works of Bernice McFadden. Question: My last novel, “Saving Elijah” fit into no particular genre, and I always felt as a consequence that the publisher didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt the book and author luncheon was a great way to bring your writing to a wider (read: white) audience. Which leads me to the following question: I feel writers are nowadays compelled in this niche-driven world to appeal to particular audiences, whether the audience is “women, “African American,” “African-American women,” “Jewish women,” or genre based. Obviously, publishers want to exploit whatever natural audience there is for a writer’s writing, but do you feel you’ve been pigeon-holed as an “African American writer” and do you feel limited by that in any way?

Bernice: YES I DO!!! It’s terrible that publishers do not market AA writers across the color line. There are a few exceptions – but too few for it to trickle down and make a major difference for the rest of the AA writers. Which is why my attendance at the Ferguson Library Luncheon was so important – I understand that in all the years I’m just the 4th AA author participant! It baffles the mind that in 2008 so many people believe that we are more different than we are alike. A real lover of literature couldn’t care less about the color of the authors skin – they just want a compelling read – plain and simple.

Fran: Can you comment briefly on how the legacy of slavery affects African Americans today.

Bernice: Four hundred years of slavery and its afternath are not easily swept awy from people’s memory and culture. I don’t know if you are familiar with the infamous Willie Lynch letter, but back in 1712, slave owner Willie Lynch addressed a group of slave owners in the colony of Virginia, and read from a prepared document that outlined his fool proof method controlling black slaves. That method, whether the powers that be admit it or not, is still–not unlike the Constitution–in use today.

Note: The Bruised Muse was unfamiliar with the Willie Lynch letter, but found an enormous amount of information on it on the Web. About what subject isn’t there an enormous amount of information on the Web? As anyone who has emailed me one of those rabble-rousing, false letters about Obama being a Muslim, or Britain/University of Kentucky/etc. eliminating the Holocaust from its school curriculum knows, I try always to seek truth. Just so the reader knows, the Willie Lynch letter is purportedly a letter by a British slave owner speaking about the way to psychologically control slaves, by dividing them according skin color, age, hair type, etc. Here’s a link for the full text. I do feel compelled to point out that there are also debunkers of this letter as an urban myth. For that, check this link. Even if the letter is a hoax, I take its point as a psychological truth. I don’t think there’s any question that oppressed people adopt certain of the negative stereotypes and notions foisted on them by their oppressors, and that it is to their detriment to do so. I do believe a light-skin/dark-skin self-prejudice still rages in the black community, for example. Where did this come from? An oppressor will always encourage you to argue amongst yourselves while he picks your pocket and keeps his foot on your head. It’s an effective, psychologically sound (if Machiavellian) slight of hand.

Bernice’s website is: http://www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/

Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.

Movie Review: “Trumbo”

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of the new film, Trumbo, at the Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. I was invited by my friend, Alan Klingenstein, one of the film’s producers, and it was indeed a pleasure, if a disturbing one. Trumbo, directed by Peter Asken, is a documentary about the great Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the early fifties in the hysteria of the anti-Communist era in America. Called before the demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Dalton Trumbo refused to name names and was consequently jailed and blacklisted by the Hollywood community. All this deprived him both of his place and his livelihood, but the greater psychological loss, I think, was his sense of betrayal by his friends and his country. He and his young family struggled for years afterward not only to survive, but with vicious ostracism. Trumbo did write a film here and there under assumed names, and he even won an Oscar for his work on “The Brave One,” but of course he couldn’t show up to claim the prize and it went unclaimed until the blacklist was finally lifted in 1960. I found the clips from the famous “I Am Spartacus!” scene in Spartacus, and also from The Brave One, The Sandpiper, Johnny Got His Gun and the Fixer among the most interesting parts of the film. How is art related to life? Here’s how. Into these films Trumbo inserted his beliefs about free speech, and themes of both betrayal and friendship. That these themes figured prominently in both his letters and his fiction shows how deeply he felt about them.

Trumbo was adapted from the play of the same name by son Christopher, and features emotional readings of letters written by the cantankerous, brilliant, witty Trumbo, many from jail, by a collection of extraordinary actor/celebrities including Liam Neeson, Paul Giametti, Nathan Lane, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Straithairn. All this is intermixed with frightening but familiar archival footage of the “Hollywood Ten” hearings stage-managed by Senator McCarthy, touching Trumbo home movie footage, personal photographs, and interviews with Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi, along with Christopher and many others who knew the man. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that somehow manages to be both informational and dramatic, and provides not only a compelling window into the struggles of this man and his family and others caught up in the Committee’s net, but also demonstrates the danger that demagogues who pray on unbridled fear pose for this country. Over and over in history, we have seen eras in which demagogues like McCarthy take control and whip this country into a frenzy, from the Red Scare of the early last century, to the Vietnam War, to the tenure of our current disastrous Administration. Why does this happen in our democracy? Is it something gullible in the American character? The film ought to be required viewing in every high school in America.

Congratulations to Alan.  Also check Alan’s new film venture at www.filmcatcher.com.

More guns, more death, more grief

Every day now, it seems, we have to eat more of the poisonous fruit that has grown out of the election and re-election of George Bush. Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision by the Roberts Supreme Court endorsed a so-called “personal right to own guns,” and overturned precedent of seventy years. What happened to Roberts and Alito’s promises during their confirmation hearings that they would honor precedent whenever possible? We can’t have “activist” judges, conservatives scream.

The net effect will be more guns, more death, and more grief. More mothers and fathers will suffer unspeakably over the tragic and unnecessary deaths of their children. More sisters will grieve over brothers. More brothers will weep over sisters. More grandmothers and fathers will have to bear watching their children endure the worst possible thing that could happen to them. Perhaps the honorable Justices who think there should be MORE guns in this society and not fewer guns would like to provide funds for grief counseling for the victims of their decision, one which completely defies decency, reason, and common sense. Oh, I forgot, Congress provides funds.

According to Adam Liptak’s news analysis in today’s NY Times, the precedent in this case was a 1939 decision in which the Court, in United States v. Miller, upheld a federal prosecution for transporting a sawed-off shotgun. A Federal District Court had ruled that the provision of the National Firearms Act the Miller defendants were accused of violating was barred by the Second Amendment, but the Supreme court disagreed and reinstated the indictment. This was followed by decades and decades which a majority of “courts and commentators regarded the Miller decision as having rejected the individual-right interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The court’s slim decision is yet another in a long line of devastating and destructive decisions that have followed from the stacking of the Court with conservatives. Here’s NPR’s Nina Totenberg, writing a year ago, about this matter.

“For conservatives, this term was pretty close to the best of times, and for liberals, it was pretty close to the worst of times. Although Roberts and Alito both promised at their confirmation hearings to honor precedent whenever possible, in their first full term together, they effectively reversed a number of key precedents. In each case, it was by a 5-to-4 vote.”

And the trend has only escalated during this current term.

During the arguments the appallingly arrogant and seriously misguided Justice Antonin Scalia, the darling of the right, parsed the meaning of the words “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Justice Scalia argued that “the prefatory statement of purpose should not be interpreted to limit the meaning of what is called the operative clause.” His word-parsing, semantic argument is not unlike the argument over the placement of the comma in the clause that has been going on for some time now, and which, for all I know, may even be part of the decision. How do we argue semantics over common sense? That’s what I want to know. The “liberal” Justice Stevens argued more globally and sensibly that the majority’s understanding of the Miller decision was not only “simply wrong but reflected a lack of respect for the well-settled views of all our predecessors on the court, and for the rule of law itself,” and was “based on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the Second Amendment.”

As the kids say, “Whatever.”

The net effect will be more guns, more death, more grief.

I so well remember a conversation I had back in 2004 with a young woman who said she was going to vote for George Bush, because he would keep us safe. I decided not to address the “safety” argument, and pointed out that the reelection of George Bush would lead to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which I knew she cared about, and many other laws that she counted on without even realizing it. She looked at me and shrugged, “Never happen.” Well, it IS happening, and it will continue to happen…

And it is yet another reason to support Barack Obama for President. John McCain comes right out and says he will continue to appoint conservative Justices like Scalia and Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. We cannot and SHOULD NOT just shrug that off, we should take John McCain at his word. Here’s yet another case of the unquestioning acceptance and operational reality of “doublethink” in this country. WHO are the “activist” judges?

Let’s do some real straight talking. If John McCain is elected, we can look forward to even more poisonous decisions by the Supreme Court, with majorities that will not be so slim.

Immersed in the language of our dissolving country

their cronies

and the poor

American landscape

disappearing in the rockets and red glare,

battle hymns of them and us.

Who are these people who

hang unbroken in creation

stimulate their Jesus action figures

steamrolled by flat-out hucksters

stupefied by the complex,

stream across the detritus of America

abrogate treaties, inform parades

circumnavigate the globe with their

misbegotten little wars,

sell any crapola like Good News,

stir any Orwellian double talk into their soup,

eat any fiction they find strewn across the open plains,

while little girls spread their legs

and people die without good reason

and we eat the poisonous fruit.

What is human without a microphone?

To which country did my grandfather Abraham come,

carrying his clothes on his back?

On my bookshelf

Up next on my book-laden night table are:

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. One of my favorite writers. This one is Roth in the winter of his life. Brilliant and provocative, as always.

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden. I heard Bernice speak at a Book and Author Luncheon and there was something about her that moved me. So I picked up her book. Toni Morrison called one of her books, “searing and riveting.” That’s good enough for me. As soon as I finish reading it, she and I are going to have a little interview. She’s agreed. I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting questions for her, and she’ll have lots of interesting answers. Watch for it.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Happens by Amanda Ripley. I heard Amanda Ripley on Diane Reehm’s show and for some reason, possibly because a friend of mine just barely made it out of the Towers, I was fascinated. In order to write the book, Amanda endured a series of dangerous situations to see how she herself would react. It seems most people freeze, or wait and see what other people are doing, or waste time to gather up their belongings, all of which are exactly wrong. Denial, deliberation, and then taking action are the three steps. Amanda says that you matter more than you think, you must act, luck is not the only factor, although 9/11 was a case in which it was unclear what to do, or as she put it “there was no true north.” She also advises that you should get to know your “disaster personality” and to give your brain something to work with. For example, when you get on the plane, count the number of rows, so that when it’s dark and full of smoke and you can’t see, your brain has something to work with…in a theater know where the exit is, and so on. People who think they have control over their destiny do much better. This seems confirmed by my friend in the Trade Center. She had been in the 93 bombing, and simply wasn’t going to listen to the authorities when they came on the loudspeakers and told everyone to stay. Others who listened to authority weren’t so lucky.

Amanda also talked about the differences between reactions in men and women, blacks and whites, different income levels, etc. For example, income absolutely determines who dies in fire; as one firefighter said, “I never fought a fire in a rich man’s home.” In some disasters it’s much better to be a man; in the Tsunami, for example, women drowned because they were never taught to swim. On the other hand, in hurricanes and floods, men are more likely to die, because women evacuate earlier. This led to the point that really gave me pause, which was that women and minorities differ substantially from white men in their reactions to disaster. According to Amanda, this probably has to do with world view and might reveal that white men have more self confidence, hence their superior ability to take action. Thirty percent of white men, according to this author, seem completely unworried about hazards. I think my husband is in that camp. In many situations, like a hurricane, worrying can be an asset. Men may eventually take action because of their confidence, but they’re already too late. The people who worry have already gotten out. Presumably this means women and blacks, but it seems belied by what happened in New Orleans. I shall have to check the point when I read the book. As for the point about women, maybe some of the propensity to worry has to do with women being the primary caretakers of children, instinctively attuned to worrying about their children. I mention this with apologies to feminists, a group I consider myself part of. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff, at least to me. Can’t wait to read the book.

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. Apparently Matt went under cover in the Reverend Hagee’s church and found out just how deranged these people are. Still, he even, apparently, admits to having felt sucked in at points. It reminds me, for some reason, of one of my favorite bits of interior monologue of all time. It’s from (I think) Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. The character sees a Hassid on the subway, and goes on about how it would be so nice to have rules and laws like he does that tell you what to do in every aspect of your life, your path and God’s plan all laid out for you, how safe and secure that would be…and goes on and on, and then finally says, “But what a f—ing haircut.” I just loved that paragraph, and have always remembered it from way back in the early 80s, despite my currently failing memory. I hope I got the source right. In any case, Taibbi is a provocative and facile writer, his Huffington post spat with Erica Jong notwithstanding.

More Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

Here are more psychological thriller book recommendations.   At the risk of being accused of shameless self-promoting, I will again first recommend my own books: Saving Elijah, Flight, and A Reasonable Madness. Here are some others that can be placed only loosely in the category of psychological thriller.

Raveling by Peter Moore Smith. I loved this one. An eerie, deeply psychological, highly entertaining thriller and family drama by the brother of actress Julianne Moore. About a man who feels his sanity slipping away while he’s trying to deal with a mother who is seeing ghosts, a fastidious neurosurgeon brother , and a difficult past that includes the long ago disappearance of his sister.

Anything by Paul Auster. Auster’s books include City of Glass, Oracle Night, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, The Brooklyn Follies, and Moon Palace. While Auster does stand back emotionally from his characters, his books are deeply absorbing page turners, intellectual thrillers. The fascinating and brilliant Auster is not to be missed, even if he is the darling of the literati.

The Witching Hour by Ann Rice I also liked Interview with the Vampire, but this one is by far my favorite Ann Rice. Written in her usual ornate style, this long, engrossing and hypnotic tale of witchcraft and the occult spans four centuries of a great dynasty of witches–a family given to poetry and incest, to murder and philosophy, a family that over the ages is haunted by a powerful, dangerous and seductive being.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Also The Little Friend. I include Donna Tartt’s books, which some may argue are primarily “literary,” because they read like the very best psychological thrillers. Powerful and evocative page turners about friendship, arrogance, murder, the recklessness of youth, family secrets, crime and punishment, and lots of other fascinating subjects that matter.

Blood Test, Over the Edge, Therapy, Self-Defense, Bad Love by Jonathan Kellerman. Kellerman, a psychologist himself, writes effectively and believably (although very violently) in this series, which features a crime solving psychologist named Alex Delaware and his policeman sidekick. Kellerman has millions of fans. I’ve listed some of the earlier efforts in the series as I haven’t read one recently. These books fall more traditionally in the “psychological thriller” genre.

The Key to Midnight, False Memory Phantoms, The Darkest Evening of the Year, Watchers, The House of Thunder, by Dean Koontz. Another extremely popular writer whose work falls more traditionally in the thriller genre, although this one leans more toward horror, as his plots usually involve supernatural doings. Also conspiracies, elaborate technology, and extreme violence. I especially liked The Darkest Evening, which involves a wonderful Golden Retriever. I share Mr. Koontz’s love of dogs, though my dog is a Lab. Again, I’ve listed earlier work, because I haven’t read one recently.

The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. While Atwood is a “literary” writer I list some of her books here because she’s probably my favorite writer, and her books, whatever else they are, are page turners. She’s brilliant and unique and sophisticated and her books are always psychologically sound.

The Stand, by Steven King. This is my favorite, but most of his books are amazing. He’s a great writer.

Seventh Heaven, The Foretelling, Practical Magic, Here on Earth, Fortune’s Daughter by Alice Hoffman. I’ve only listed a few of her many, many books, but I always find Hoffman’s unique magical realist page turners compelling, psychologically sound and irresistible.

Also, Jeffrey Deaver and Dennis Lehane, for more traditional psychological thriller fare.

Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

A reader from Texas writes:

Dear Fran,

Thanks for writing three unforgettable books. I hope you will keep on writing. And now I would like to have your suggestions for other books in the same category as yours.

Well. Hmmmm. I thank you for joining the small but select contingent of people on the planet who have read the complete works of Fran Dorf, to date. I’m adding “to date” since you hope that I will keep on writing. Another fiction? I’m not sure. I’ve been working on a memoir and essays (one of which I’m going to present at an academic conference in October), and of course I have my blog. The blog is fun, and I’ve had quite a few visitors, more than I expected, to be honest, but it certainly hasn’t taken the world by storm. I heartily thank everyone who’s come to visit, and hope you will come back and recommend it to your friends.

I started three or four novels after Saving Elijah, and even finished one, but it didn’t sell to a publisher and the others just didn’t pan out. The business has changed so much. And maybe I have too, after the experience of losing my son and then writing and publishing Saving Elijah. In any case, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for writers who used to be called “the midlist,” that is, those who sell modestly but are given the chance to keep publishing, even if they don’t achieve bestseller status. The whole business– publishers, editors, big store retail–is geared toward bestsellers. Whereas publishers used to understand that a writer grows with each effort and nurtured you along, nowadays it’s all about the bottom line, and if you don’t hit it out of the park right away, you are going to have a tough slog. The publishing world is full of people like me who’ve published three novels and now can’t seem to find a place. And it doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with reviews, as my books were very well reviewed. The truth is, Saving Elijah may well be my last fiction. My longtime editor writes constantly to encourage me to do what I do and write fiction again. She’s very persuasive and persistent, so you never know.

But other writers have produced and will continue to produce wonderful novels and somehow these get published, and so now on to the recommendations. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of recommending books that would be in the same “category” as mine, as I don’t think my books fit neatly into a category, particularly Saving Elijah, which is part family drama, part ghost story and part thriller. Oh, perhaps they’re all broadly in the psychological suspense category, but I think all good books are psychological, and all good books are also suspenseful. With psychological and suspense as the two criteria, anything might fit, from Toni Morrison to James Patterson. I won’t be recommending James Patterson (He hardly needs me; he has millions of fans), and the truth is I only rarely read the classic psychological thrillers any more, and so I admit this is an eclectic mix indeed, but nevertheless I offer some of my favorites. This is completely subjective of course, but to a greater or lesser degree all of these books have literary merit, authentic human drama, some degree of psychological sophistication, plots with compelling narrative drive in which plot is no more or less important than the characterizations, and characters with interesting and believable interior lives whose actions are convincing. All have a protagonist who is, either from inside demons or outside forces, in some degree of psychological danger. Some may be obscure, but all are in my opinion worth it. So aside from my own three books which I list first in a shameless act of self-promotion (hey, every other writer self-promotes, I figure it’s about time I did it too), here are my recommendations in no particular order:

A Reasonable Madness by Fran Dorf. Entertainment Weekly called it “satisfying” and United Press International called it a “wonderfully believable psychological thriller.”

Flight by Fran Dorf. A Booklist starred review said, “Fran Dorf pilots this ambitious book with infallible accuracy…an emotional landscape, two decades of decaying counterculture, artfully distilled and disassembled. Ethan skit is the quintessance of the ex-con loner.” Pub Weekly called it “riviting, tantalizing, shocking.”

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf. Part ghost story, part family drama, part thriller, Saving Elijah is my baby, my “testament to maternal grief,” as the reviewer at Amazon.com called it.  The Wall Street Journal called it “ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done.”  See more reviews above and on the novels page. I especially recommend the book to the bereaved, because for all its supernatural trappings and its wise-talking, spectral literary devise the book is more than anything an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.

Affinity by Sarah Waters: This period novel takes place in the nineteenth century, and is one of the best ghost stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I also loved Fingersmith, by the same author, another period piece.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath: This writer, who apparently grew up as the son of an Asylum superintendent, writes hypnotically and knowingly about mental illness, obsession, and betrayal. Don’t pay any attention to the mediocre film of Asylum with Natasha Richardson; this is the real thing. An unforgettable narrator. Brilliant, deeply psychological, riveting. I also loved McGrath’s Tales of Manhattan Then and Now: a collection of three extraordinary novellas.

Privileged Conversation by Evan Hunter: This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s Ed McBain writing as Evan Hunter. Sexy and psychologically sound. About a middle aged psychologist who becomes involved with and obsessed by a beautiful young dancer. As the story progresses, the man gradually begins to see this troubled young girl as person rather than object, which implicates him as exploiter rather than lover. A fascinating book.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is a broadly plotted, ornately written book by a Spaniard about a young man obsessed with a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and its mysterious author. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels, and the search for the book takes Daniel on a journey that is full of thrilling twists and turns. Gothic. Scary, erotic, touching and tragic.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell: A haunting and absorbing novel about a young woman who receives a phonecall about her great aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, who is being released from Cauldstone Hospital-where she has been locked away for more than sixty one years. Beautifully written, told by a terribly believable if naive narrator, a pleasure, with an end that will shock and surprise you, until you realize how perfectly right it is.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due: This one is less believable than the others, of course, since it concerns the “immortals” who live forever, but it’s still thrilling and psychologically sound and keeps you going.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield A psychological thriller about the lives we invent for ourselves.

Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil by Rafael Yglesias. This a a large, long book, but well worth the read for the psychologically sophisticated reader, especially those interested in psychoanalysis. Pub Weekly calls it an “ambitious therapeutic morality tale that explores the banality of evil.” This one can’t really be classified; it’s a psychological thriller, a morality tale, a drama, an expose, and a novel of ideas all rolled into one.

More later. Gotta go now.

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading