Monday, April 28, 2008

Eleni, by Nicholas Gage

An extraordinary blend of investigative reporting and imagination, originally printed in 1983. Nicholas Gage, who emigrated at the age of nine to America from Greece in 1949, was haunted by his mother's death. His mother, Eleni, was tried and executed in his little mountain village in 1948, by communist guerrillas, who controlled the village during the civil war there.

Gage wanted to know who was really responsible for his mother's death. True to his heritage, as an adult he set out to revenge her death, but his background in investigative journalism led him to seek out the truth first.

In this massive tale, over 600 pages in the cheap paperback edition I bought, Gage begins at the beginning and relentlessly takes us on every road, into every conversation, through the relatively good times and into the horrific, that holds a part of his mother. He sketches her early years and marriage, giving us a glimpse of her husband Christo, who sought his fortune in the United States, returning periodically to be with his wife but who believed it better to keep her in Greece, living the "old ways" while he lived the new. From 1940, when the communist and fascist guerrilla groups were gaining ground in Greece, until her death in 1948, Eleni lived a life of increasing hardship. She had come from a family of privilege and her husband had sent her money for her support while he was gone, but in 1940 the mail was cut off and she no longer had any support or any word from him.

Life in the mountain village of Lia was hardly a cakewalk in the best of times. The culture demanded that women follow strict standards of dress and behavior, much as fundamentalist Muslim women do now. Women were raised to obey the men in their lives, to make no decisions on their own.

It was just this fact that eventually led to Eleni's death. When she first had a chance to get out of Lia she did not take it because her husband, in his last letter to her, had said the guerrillas were their friends and they would not hurt her. She could not disobey him. Later, though, she saw that her fate and that of her children demanded that she make a different decision.

She engineered an escape, revealing a raw courage that belied her cultural background. Other women who joined the escape band were less secure, unsure of what to do or how to manage without direct orders from men. Eleni was unable to join the group ultimately, but gave her children directions to avoid detection by guerrillas when they slipped away. The escape shocked the village and the guerrilla government decided somebody had to pay.

Gage doesn't spare many details. His story reads like fiction, with characters, words, and thoughts fleshed out. Intermittently he inserts first-person narratives, reminding us that it isn't fiction. The blend reminds me a bit of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mailer's The Executioner's Song, but Gage has a more personal relationship with his main character and this relationship is what drives the tale. The quality of the re-creation isn't as literary as the other two works but it's far beyond hackwork.

While the story is clearly about Eleni it also gives us a good picture of life in the mountain villages in Greece at the time. It also helped me to see how a civil war like this one can pit neighbor against neighbor, with horrifying consequences. Yet at the heart of it I was surprised to find that most of the villagers did not succumb to greed when it would have been easy, did not choose to speak against others to gain privileges for themselves. Certainly some did these things, but their characters had been evident before the guerrillas moved in. It is easy to become irritated at the superstitions, the cultural norms, the ignorance at the heart of village life. Yet the innate strength of many of the same people is impressive. Perhaps living in a village where everyone knows everyone else's secrets does make for stronger bonds.

Knowing the end ahead of time made the reading hard-going for me at times. I had nightmares two nights in a row, about executions. I couldn't wait to get through the details, details, details, and past the death itself. When it came it didn't hit me like a fist in my stomach as I had anticipated. I was relieved. An extra treat for me, having made it that far, was the wrapping up, the resolution of Gage's hunt for revenge. Riveting reading, all the way through.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

A terrific book. Groopman takes on the task of figuring out how doctors make decisions about treatment. He finds that the majority of medical mistakes come from certain types of thinking patterns that doctors fall into. He offers simple suggestions to both doctor and patient to help the doctors break out of these patterns in particular cases.

Patients and doctors can benefit most by understanding the "three As", as they were termed by one reader:

  • anchoring
  • attribution
  • availability

"Anchoring" is seizing on a set of symptoms, making a snap diagnosis and not looking further

"Attribution" is making assumptions about a patient because of certain patient attributes - old, young, complainer, whatever. In an episode of House the patient was a hugely obese man who insisted that the doctors look past his weight for what was wrong with him. Turns out he was right; the diagnosis was bad but had nothing to do with his weight.

"Availability" is the tendency to remember, in a flash, similar cases and assign the present case to the same group. For example, if the doctor has been treating a number of people with abdominal pains and they all had acid reflux he might jump to that assumption in a similar case because the diagnosis is "available" - frequently used, easy to call on.

I am sure I haven't described these as well as I could. What is critical for patients is to ask some meaningful questions when they feel the diagnosis may not be right for some reason. Here are the questions Dr. Groopman suggests:

"What else could it be?" - this question can break the physician away from a snap diagnosis.

"Could two things be going on at once?" In other words, might there be two problems instead of one?

"Is there anything in my history or the tests that seem to be at odds with the diagnosis?" Sometimes doctors see symptoms that "don't fit" but simply label them "atypical". This question brings those symptoms to the front.

I want to give a copy of this book to the doctor I have seen a few times, the doctor I am starting to consider my primary physician. I think all doctors should read it, and in the case of my doctor I suspect he actually would. It's a great resource, written compassionately and clearly, that does not condemn doctors; instead it can help them be better than they are.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

A memoir about a family living on the edge, deliberately.

Walls is born to parents who are highly intelligent and creative but whose own presumably (and suggested) dark pasts make them both junkies for excitement and change. Thus they live from hand to mouth, rarely staying in one place longer than a couple of months, for the early part of Jeanette's childhood. Jeanette's father is an alcoholic who isn't able to keep a job but who has big dreams as well as big smarts. He manages to keep their various vehicles alive one way or another, devises engineering feats where necessary, teaches his children about the stars, about physics, about math, proudly pushes them (literally) into the water where they must sink or swim.

Her mother wraps herself into her own creative ventures, painting, writing, sketching, and is usually ready when the family has to "skedaddle" in the middle of the night. Neither parent worries about the health of their children, living by the maxim that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. On this front it appears that her mother is the tougher of the two in some respects.

By the time Jeanette and her family move into Welch, Virginia, her father's childhood home, she certainly can take care of herself. She worships her father yet recognizes that he has failed her time and again. All of the children - Lori, Jeanette, Brian, and Maureen - somehow manage to find food, stay clothed, and go to school, and even excel. They don't make friends easily, finding that even in this "okie" territory they are outcasts, dirtier, skinnier, and tougher than the rest.

It's a memoir of a tough life that at times seemed wondrous to Jeanette. Being given a star for her birthday. Sleeping in a cardboard appliance box. Being encouraged to challenge life rather than be challenged by it. Thus it is more than a sad tale of children of an alcoholic, even though those of us who share that distinction are going to recognize some of the responses. It is more a tale of resilience and hope and ultimately simply acceptance.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Black Dahlia Avenger, by Steven Hodel

I confess to a perhaps unnatural fascination with "true crime" stories. I have read many, from the very good to the unbelievably bad. But that isn't the primary reason I wanted to read this book.

When I visited a special motel in Desert Hot Springs one year the owner told me that Steve Hodel had been there and had told him his story about the Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) murder. The motel owner (a friend of mine) was highly enthusiastic about Hodel and his book. I decided to get it some day, in large part because of that endorsement. That day came when I saw that it was available through paperbackswap.

Hodel is a retired detective from the same police force that investigated this murder years before he joined. His experience as a detective led me to believe that his research and analysis would be sober, thorough, and logical, even though it focused on his father.

It's a thick book, full of details and exhibits and what the author refers to as "thoughtprints" - his way of connecting dots. His use of these thoughtprints bothered me a bit because they are a way of relying on assumptions more than on cold hard evidence. I recognize that the type evidence he obtained was not direct (photographs, memories, notes with odd references, newspaper articles) and it was necessary to try to piece together the meaning from them, but I felt he went from finding this type evidence to drawing those conclusions and then referring to his conclusions as fact. It seemed odd that a detective would make such leaps.

From the beginning I wondered about his decision to do this investigation without aid of LAPD files on the subject. He made several assumptions about their availability but did not actually make the effort to obtain them until after the book was published (this version of the book is the expanded version and does include information from LAPD files). His explanations, that he no longer has the connections to the department that he once had, didn't convince me. In his place, if I had the other materials that he unearthed and so carefully labeled and reproduced, I would have been hungry for confirmation of my conclusions, hungry enough to see how far I could get in looking at those files.

Another block to my own ability to buy Hodel's story whole is the writing itself. I am sure the editors worked slavishly to make it readable and to organize it. Sometimes, though, you reach a point where you have to say "enough" and let it go out in the world. I suspect this is what happened. The book is repetitious, oddly organized, and difficult to wade through. It got to the point where I set it down after reading just a page or two, then picked it up later to continue slogging on. A better writer might have been able to put it together better and make a better case with the same facts.

Hodel may well be right in many of his assumptions, and the case he made for a "coverup" in the years surrounding the Black Dahlia murder and early investigation, is convincing. In fact, the case he makes against his own father as the murderer is worth serious consideration. I do quibble with some of his reasoning:

He draws a portrait of his father as a man who used women and then discarded them (except for his last wife, who hung in for 30 years). Yet when Steve Hodel creates a possible motive for the killing of Beth Short he assumes Short agreed to marry Hodel and when she later jilted him he became enraged and killed her. The two pictures of George Hodel don't match, in my opinion.

I also found Hodel's "evidence" that his father's longtime friend, Fred Sexton, also took part in some of the murders Hodel attributes to his father unconvincing. One part of the evidence is a photograph of Sexton compared to a police sketch of a perp seen by a witness. The drawing shows a man with a prominent widow's peak, while Sexton has none and has a high forehead. I can't buy that they are the same man.

All of which does not mean that I don't believe Hodel's basic conclusion that his father killed Elizabeth Short. It seems very possible and even likely. I am less convinced by what he trots out as the other murders also committed by his father.

I am frustrated that all his work did not lead to an official investigation, a circumstance that clearly befuddles Hodel as well. At one point he took his findings to a DA in Los Angeles county offices, a person who could in fact find reason to call for an investigation. The chapter is titled "Filing My Case with the District Attorney's Office". Yet he did not officially file the case there. Instead, he contacted a member of the office whom he knew, gave him the information, and requested an "as-if" memo. The DA knocked out a several-page memo stating that he would file it if it were real. Why didn't he file it for real? I didn't get a good answer to that either.

A near-exhausting hunt that, for me, turned up almost as many questions as answers.