Sunday, July 18, 2010

Earthly Possessions, by Anne Tyler

A short, easily-read novel of a woman who, essentially from birth, wants to leave everything behind, wants to part with her "earthly possessions".

Charlotte Emory grows up hearing stories about her birth: her mother, who was fat, gave birth unexpectedly, not knowing she was pregnant. She was in such a fog that afterwards she contended that she'd been given the wrong baby. Charlotte's father, a distracted portrait photographer, dismisses the idea but Charlotte thinks it's true. Certain incidents in her life give some credence to the idea.

Somewhere along the line Charlotte simply thinks she is living the wrong life and she needs to get out. She tries to get rid of things again and again, only to have the persons in her life bring them back. She tries to get out on her own but is more than once drawn back by the needs of her parents. Then, almost out of the blue, she gets married and again is stuck.

Not that she doesn't try to get away. She does, but ends up returning. At the opening of this book she is planning another escape when instead she is taken hostage by a bank robber.

There were times when it seemed like the story might turn into a cute road trip story, full of bizarre characters and incidents. Fortunately, it did not. Instead, ultimately Charlotte realizes what travel really means.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

There Is No Me Without You, by Melissa Faye Greene

Greene brings home the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia in this book, by making it personal. She doesn't spare us the statistics, which are too large to be comprehensible, but she intertwines the numbers with the names. A small sample of names, drawn mostly from the orphanage created by one woman, Haregewoin Teferra.

Haregewoin is already on the wrong side of middle age when she loses her grown daughter, one of only two. She has known grief before, with the loss of her husband, and the loss of her daughter drags her down to an unrecognizable state. So when she is approached by a Catholic organization to take in and foster a couple of AIDS orphans, she initially can't see why she would do such a thing. But then she realizes that the priest is handing her a lifeline, bringing more children into her life when she desperately needs them. From then, she can't say no.

She takes children into her little compound, comprised of a small brick house and some metal shipping containers, surrounded by a wall. A day hardly passes when there isn't somebody at the door with another child. And Haregewoin has enough love for them all. For she is that rare person who loves deeply, who touches everyone with that love. For some time she survives with help from her other daughter Suzie (sending part of her paycheck), from donations from other friends, and from whatever she can dig up. When she is approached by an organization to adopt out some of her children, she moves into a different stage financially.

She begins to obtain more funding and more children, and is able to secure better accommodations. But money continues to cause her distress and soon the number of children has become so large that she no longer recognizes each by name. Through this detailed description of Haregewoin's life and work with orphans we learn that "even saints aren't saints", that having a passion for children is not enough.

We learn, too, how it is that millions in Africa have simply been written off because drug companies are unwilling to allow them access to effective AIDS drugs at reasonable cost and how politicians unfortunately back the drug companies. In other words, the AIDS crisis in Africa is as much a tale of greed as anything else.

Surprisingly, at least to me, it appears that the genesis of AIDS and its later spread have had nothing to do with sex. There is a lot of information in this book. There is also a touching story of one woman, along with brief stories of many of the orphans she saved. It is therefore highly readable and a way to bring some perspective to a problem so huge our minds can't comprehend it.