Disaster’s Aftermath

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A plane crashed, and five lives are transformed.

By David L. Ulin

By J. Robert Lennon, C’92
New York: Riverhead Books, 1997, 308 pp., $23.95
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There’s a commonplace that often makes the rounds about writing, which is that it’s best to lead off with a bang. We readers, after all, come to literature bearing limited attention — or so the logic tells us — and without a great first line or an immediately recognizable concept, there is little that will fix us in a story long enough to overcome the tumult of our lives. Considered in these terms, the act of writing can seem like manipulation, a consequence of authorial contrivance rather than any particular need to tell. But while that may be true of certain writers, for most a vivid opening is simply sound aesthetic strategy, since part of the way narrative works is as a journey, and traveling is far more pleasurable when anticipation is built in from the start.

If his debut novel, The Light of Falling Stars, is any indication, J. Robert Lennon works with this notion clearly in mind. From the book’s first sentence — “A plane crashed,” it begins — the 27-year-old author draws us into the lives of five people in the Missoula-like city of Marshall, Montana, for whom, after a local air disaster, everything has changed. As if to emphasize the kaleidoscopic nature of the situation, Lennon eschews the unifying presence of one central figure in favor of chapters that alternate from character to character, seeking in their connection a broader view.

What makes The Light of Falling Stars different from most first novels is Lennon’s decision to steer clear of autobiography, or else to bury it so deeply in his narrative that it is effectively transformed. Of his five main characters, two — 73-year-old Trixie, who loses her ex-husband, Hamish, when the plane goes down, and Bernardo, a middle-aged Italian who is the only survivor of the crash — spend much of the book facing aging’s petty degradations, and even those of Lennon’s generation are distinct from his experience, if only because of what they’ve been through. Thus, Paul and Anita Beveridge may seem like a typically troubled young couple, but when a piece of falling engine shears the corner off their house and Anita must comfort a dying boy in the shadow of the wreck, the quiet desperation of their lives can no longer be contained. For Lars Cowgill, the burden of survival is even worse; his girlfriend, Megan, is killed in the disaster.

Lennon brings all this together in several ways, most directly through the searing filter of loss. That’s the texture by which everyone here has been altered, and as The Light of Falling Stars progresses, it provides a recognizable common ground. Lars and Trixie may never meet, but their grief is consistent — a combination of loneliness and despair that, at times, assumes an almost physical form. Elsewhere, the links are more explicit, as with Paul and Anita, whose perspectives are both represented, allowing us to witness the dissolution of their marriage from more than one side. Then there’s the subtle, nearly serendipitous way Lennon puts his characters into contact, which mirrors the ebb and flow of the world. When Paul, a private investigator, spends a few days watching Lars’s boss, he and Lars get to know each other, and desolation and continuity begin to merge. The same thing happens with Bernardo, who moves into a shed behind Paul and Anita’s house. Lennon’s point is that, despite the chaos around us, there are patterns in the simplest interactions that can help us find a way to go on.

That’s not to say The Light of Falling Stars is without problems. In places, Lennon fails to keep the seams from showing through his narrative, as if he’s writing not from organic urgency but to move the plot along, and elsewhere, one has the sense that his material is a step or two beyond him, that he cannot quite imagine himself into the bleakest corners of his characters’ lives.

Still, in nearly every case, Lennon redeems these scenes with exquisitely rendered reflections that cast his story in a fuller light. For instance, Paul’s reaction to Anita’s infidelity — in which he realizes that he is less disturbed by her betrayal of him than the weight of what’s at stake — is an epiphany that resonates throughout the book. As Lennon explains, “He understood that this was what he was in danger of losing — the privilege of seeing her body at its most raw and practical. … [T]his was unsexual and beautiful to him, and the loss was a great awful vacuum in his chest.”

David L. Ulin, C’84, is the author of Cape Cod Blues, a book of poems. His work appears in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, LA Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon. Currently, he is writing a book about Jack Kerouac for the University of California Press.

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

Russia’s Changing Role in Asia
Edited by Stephen J. Blank, C’71, and Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Gr’54, Faculty.
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. 296 pp., $49.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper). Order this book    
As it prepares for the 21st century, Russia finds itself “the sick man of Asia.” A status quo power, it is no longer a threat to its neighbors, but it is a nuclear superpower. As such, it remains very much a problem for the United States, and its cooperation is essential for the creation of any system of security and stability in East Asia. This collection of 10 essays examines the major changes that have occurred under Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s relations with China, Japan, and the two Koreas, and speculates about their consequences for Russia’s future in the region and with the United States. Rubinstein is professor of political science at Penn; Blank is MacArthur Professor of National Security Affairs for the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.

Women, Law School, and Institutional Change
By Lani Guinier, Hon’92, Faculty, Michelle Fine, and Jane Balin, C’84,G’88, Gr’94.
Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1997.
192 pp., $22.00. Order this book    
A one-size-fits-all approach to legal education discourages many women who could otherwise succeed in law school, and, even worse, fails to help all students realize their full potential as legal problem solvers, this book concludes. With Balin and Fine, Guinier, a Law School professor, conducted a study of students enrolled in Penn Law School between 1987 and 1992. According to their findings, women come to the school with credentials virtually identical to those of their male counterparts, but don’t perform as well academically, participate as much in class, or graduate with the same honors. The authors are particularly critical of the so-called “Socratic” method used in most law school teaching, writing that this practice in which professors “ask individual students to answer a stream of questions in front of their peers, often ‘cold calling’ on students who are not identified in advance — looks to many women like ritualized combat.” Fine is a professor of social psychology at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York, and Balin is an assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University.

Reconstructing a Lost World
By Jeremy A. Sabloff, C’64, Faculty.
New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1997. 224 pp., $16.95. Order this book    
Ancient Mexico was one of the great independent hearths of civilization. Out of a varied landscape grew some of the richest cultures of the early historic world — Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec. Standard histories tend to focus on the individual societies, but Sabloff’s popular study takes an original approach, emphasizing the unity of Mexican civilization. This updated edition of the book, first published in 1989, includes the latest archaeological research on the ancient cities of Mexico; incorporates breakthroughs in the decipherment of the Maya script; and draws on fresh readings of Aztec ethnohistorical sources. Throughout, the author reveals the new ideas and techniques revolutionizing archaeological fieldwork and shows how the latest evidence is being used to reconstruct a fuller picture of life in these ancient cities. Sabloff is the Charles K. Williams II Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and University Museum Term Professor of Anthropology.

Written by Elisha Porat. Translated by Alan Sacks, C/G’74, L’77.
Oakville, Ontario, Canada: Mosaic Press, 1996. 176 pp., $14.95.
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   Porat was born in 1938 to “pioneer” parents who were among the founders of the kibbutz where he has lived all his life. His stories are often based on kibbutz life, his service in a front line reconnaissance unit in the Israeli army, and, more recently, on the nearly fatal heart attack that he suffered a few years ago. He received Israel’s 1995 Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature for this collection of six short stories of modern Israeli life, the first collection of his work to be translated into English.

Retold by William King, C’93.
Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1996.
56 pp., $9.98.
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   King, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Philadelphia, has adapted eight children’s tales from a collection written by Andersen between 1835 and 1872. The stories, each illustrated in color by a different artist, include “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Steadfast Toy Soldier,” “The Princess and The Pea,” and “The Ugly Duckling.”

The Institute of Medicine’s Guide to Women’s Health Issues
By Beryl Lieff Benderly, CW’64, G’66, for the Institute of Medicine.
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997. 230 pp., $29.95.
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   Yesterday, women confided in their doctors about health problems and received advice in private. Today, women’s health issues are headline material. Topics that once raised a blush now raise a blare of conflicting medical news and political advocacy. Women need help in sorting through the flood of reports on scientific studies, new treatments, and just plain myths. The Institute of Medicine has responded to this need with In Her Own Right. Benderly, a health and psychology writer, examines women’s health across the life span with a frank, conversational approach, highlighting what is known about health differences between men and women, and the mysteries that remain to be solved.

50 Environmental Hazards to Avoid When Buying, Selling, or Maintaining a Home
By Andrew N. Davis and Paul E. Schaffman, EE’80.
New York: Owl Books, 1996. 372 pp., $19.95.
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   This book will walk you through 50 possible on- and off-site hazards that can be found in your home and in the surrounding neighborhoods, such as asbestos, dry cleaners, electromagnetic fields, gas stations, lead-based paint, radon, and toxic waste dumps. Each entry discusses the health and financial risks and how to manage them; presents the outlook on laws that regulate disclosure and cleanup; and contains detailed information on what to look for, how to test, and where to go for help. Schaffman is a licensed professional engineer with experience in environmental regulations and compliance.

By John Wells, C’64.
New York: Thomas Dunne, 1997. 400 pp., $24.95.
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   This mystery chronicles the behind-the-scenes seediness and intrigue of Atlantic City and the surrounding areas, following Philadelphia private investigator Frank Sweeney on a collision course with a fire-loving murderer. Frank arrives in Atlantic City in search of his best friend’s brother, Nick D’Angelo, a compulsive gambler who’s been missing for six months. Once there, Frank finds himself searching for D’Angelo’s murderer, an arsonist-for-hire who may have been involved with several other murders throughout the years, trapping the victims and burning them alive, and apparently thoroughly enjoying the whole show. Wells, formerly a college English professor, is now a full-time writer and lives in Vestal, N.Y.

By Carey Hedlund, GLA’86.
New York: Greenwillow Books, 1997.
36 pp., $15.00.
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   It sounds simple, but the trip to Harry’s was anything but. Winding roads, wrong turns, unexpected delays. But at last the family arrived at Harry’s farm … and the fun began. Author-artist Hedlund, who lives in Philadelphia, makes her children’s picture book debut.

Edited by Diana Agrest; Patricia Conway, Faculty; and Leslie Kanes Weisman.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996. 320 pp., $19.95.
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The Sex of Architecture brings together 24 provocative texts that collectively express the power and diversity of women’s views on architecture today. In their essays the authors explore history, public space and the city, housing, consumerism, and discourse itself. They reexamine some long-suspect “truths” — that man builds and woman inhabits; that man is outside and woman is inside; that man is public and woman is private; that culture is male and nature is female. Conway, an architecture professor and past dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, edited the book with two other leaders in the field. Marion Weiss, an assistant professor of architecture at Penn, also contributed an essay, “The Politics of Underestimation.”

The Tenuous Surival of An American Jewish Community.
Edited by Dan Rottenberg, C’64.
Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997. 180 pp., $19.95.
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Muncie, Indidana, will always be known as Middletown, the name chosen by sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd for their landmark study of a “typical” midwestern metropolis during the 1920s and 1930s. Although the Lynds attempted an exhaustive examination of the community, at least one segment of the population was dismissed for being “so small as to be numerically negligible”: the Jewish population of the city. Fifty years later, two Ball State University professors decided to take another look at the Jews of Muncie, seeking out 19 citizens who had grown up there during the period in which the Lynds conducted their research and transcribed their oral histories, focusing on the question: What did it mean to be a Jew in Muncie? Rottenberg, also founder and editor of Philadelphia Forum, edited the selections and contributed a preface and epilogue.

Mythopoetics of Chekhov’s Four Major Plays
By Vera Zubarev, Gr’94, Faculty.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. 184 pp., $55.00.
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This systematic approach to the study of literary works involves the search for mythological archetypes, paradigms, and motives in a literary text. In a new attempt at an integrated vision of literary works, Zubarev, a lecturer of Slavic languages and literature and the author of six other books, presents a comprehensive approach on the basis of mythopoetics. Her theory is verified through a close examination of four of Chekhov’s major plays: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

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