Backing Into Forward

The Book of the Week is “Backing Into Forward” by Jules Feiffer, published in 2010. Feiffer ran with a creative crowd who lived through the historically tumultuous 20th Century years of poverty, anti-Fascist and anti-Communist hysteria and wars.

As a kid, Feiffer had a passion for comic strips. He did an easy stint in the military and kicked off his career in the 1940’s working as an unpaid intern of sorts, at Will Eisner’s illustration studio.  He later graduated to submitting cartoons to the radical newspaper, The Village Voice, which, when founded in the 1950’s, did not pay its contributors. After two years of boosting readership, he finally started to get paid.

After achieving fame, Feiffer also delivered college lectures, although he himself never attended college. Nevertheless, he had political smarts, and told the students that policies in Washington were made by an old boy network that would never admit wrongdoing in crises that were handled poorly. And there were many crises in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To add insult to injury, the shameless perpetrators would simply switch government positions, except for a few who resigned to escape further embarrassment at getting caught.

Read the book to learn of Feiffer’s family life, and adult adventures creating comics and writing plays and children’s books.

Healing Hearts

The Book of the Week is “Healing Hearts” by Kathy E. Magliato, M.D., published in 2010. This is a personal account detailing one woman’s experiences trying to balance her medical training and career, with her family life.

She details various issues, including but not limited to: the long, rigorous road to becoming a full-fledged doctor in her specialty; the discrimination she faces in a male-dominated field; the job emergencies that cut into quality time with her family; and the healthcare crisis in the United States.

Magliato and her husband have a combined 43 years of education and training in medicine. She, in cardiac surgery; he, in liver transplants. She describes the hardships she faces when passionately attempting to save lives. She must ignore her own physical needs while standing for, say, fifteen hours in a row to help provide patients with a replacement heart, or veins or valves. She needs to hold particular medical instruments in place for many minutes without flinching, lest she harm the patient.

Magliato predicts a collapse of the American health care system. The reason is simply that health insurance companies do not pay what hospitals bill them; rather, they pay what they feel like paying. An insurance company might be billed $385,000 for heart surgery hospitalization, but it might pay the hospital only $54,000.

“…a hospital is ecstatic whenever it collects more than 10% of the bill. How can hospitals not only survive but be able to deliver state of the art care when their price is not met? They can only increase their quantity until the hospital is full. They can only cut their costs until the delivery of quality health care is jeopardized.”

Growing Up Laughing

The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.

Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.

In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.

Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again

The Book of the Week is “You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again” by Suzanne Hansen, published in 2006. This book recounted the author’s experiences caring for the children of celebrities.

After high school, Hansen received her training at a school for nannies. She knew she was passionate about caring for children. After graduation, an agency placed her in the home of the family of a super-rich Hollywood talent agency executive. Although Hansen bonded with the three children in her care, she was unhappy with the live-in job. The parents created a tense environment, and she lacked the assertiveness to stand up to their petty, controlling attitude.

Nevertheless, Hansen acquired valuable experience that later helped her take care of the kids of movie star Debra Winger, rock star Pat Benatar and TV stars Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito. She discussed all aspects, good and bad, of being a nanny. There is more to it than meets the eye, regardless of whether the children are offspring of wealthy celebrities. Childcare seems to be an undervalued job in our society.

Little Princes

The Book of the Week is “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, published in 2010. This the story of a global aid worker who changed many lives for the better over the course of three years.

Initially, Grennan volunteered to be, in essence, a surrogate parent for a couple of months in Nepal in late 2004 at an orphanage, whose name in English is “Little Princes.” However, the children were not truly orphans. Months or years before, a child trafficker had told their parents, living in poverty-stricken rural villages, that if they gave him a lot of money– in some cases, their life savings–  that their children would be fed and clothed well and get an education. Instead, the trafficker sold them into domestic servitude in private homes. Those lucky children had been rescued by a pitifully incomplete patchwork of international child-services organizations or a government official in Kathmandu. “In Nepal, there were no safety nets, no system where all children were cared for in an orderly manner.”

Grennan fell in love with the children at Little Princes, and they, him. He thus returned to be with them after a year’s interlude. He learned of a group that ran homes in Kathmandu, and visited with kids there, too. He, with a fellow volunteer, had a dream to form an organization to have rescued children come to live in their own children’s home.

After the decade-long civil war between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoists ended, Grennan’s goal became to find the children’s parents and reunite them. In prior years, the Maoists had occupied villages and had been ruthless with people associated with aid organizations. A weeks-long expedition taken on foot in the high-altitude mountains to find the parents, was already fraught with the dangers of death by a fall, illness, marauders, and snow, and even in this day and age– the absence of communications devices (!)

Grennan encountered a traumatic situation, of which he knew not, how many of its like there were. While on an expedition like the one described above, he found out from a postal service worker that the parents of a fourteen-year old kid in a home were alive and well. At some point in the past, the kid had been given their death certificates. Grennan realized the certificates were forged. “Here was a boy who had grown up believing that his entire family was dead… I was struck by how viciously the civil war had torn this country apart.”

Once Grennan started having success reuniting children and parents, the latter were overjoyed to see the former again. “But when they learned that their child was being well taken care of, they were suddenly reluctant to take him or her home. Nepal is a terribly poor country; it is a challenge to support a family.”

Read the book to learn more about the author’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, which include a romantic subplot.

Weekends At Bellvue

The Book of the Week is “Weekends at Bellvue” by Julie Holland, published in 2009. This is a personal account of a psychiatrist who, for nine years, managed weekend admissions to Bellvue, the New York City mental hospital.

Prior to Bellvue, Dr. Holland did her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1992. On her first day, she was put in charge of a patient who believed he was God. Later, she joked to her mother, “…I am starting my medical career at the very top… I am God’s doctor!”

She describes the office politics at Bellvue, why she admitted or released all kinds of patients, including criminals, crime victims, the homeless, addicts, malingerers and people truly in need of help. Colorful vignettes are alternated with details of her personal life. She discusses the growth of her personal relationships– with a close colleague, and with her own psychiatrist, with her eventual life partner, and children. She also relates her fears of being the victim of retaliation by a former employee, and dangerous patients.

There were some extreme stories. At the occurrence of the World Trade Center disaster, a manic Iowa man rode a bus all the way to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort. There, he was somehow able to get inside and operate a backhoe. He told Dr. Holland, “They need my help.”

Dr. Holland realized she was frustrated that she was able to help patients only temporarily. Bellvue is a revolving door of sorts. Some patients return again and again, because they lack a support system to lift them permanently out of their bad situations, such as addiction, homelessness, or their going off their medication. If Dr. Holland judged that their situations warranted admission to Bellvue, they might get detoxed or restarted on their medication, and/or a comfortable place to sleep in the short term, but once released, would return to the same situation again.

In the end, Dr. Holland left Bellvue because she felt she could be of more assistance to patients in private practice in that she could establish a one-on-one long-term treatment program with them.