Rising, Falling, Hanging On

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Two very different novels of family and friendship. 

By Kerry Sherin

By Diane McKinney-Whetstone, CW’75
New York: William Morrow, 1998. 280 pp., $23.00.
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By Lorene Cary, C/G’78
New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1998. 321 pp., $23.95.
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  It’s no accident that Tempest Rising, Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s second novel, opens with a description of a grand, stone Victorian house. The book has all of the eccentric characters and uncanny plot twists of a Dickens novel. Innocent children get snatched up by the bureaucracy, then are lost in a storm. A good mother suddenly finds she must escape from a mental institution, while a bad one fritters away her daughter’s salary playing back-room cards. Ghost stories evolve into murder mysteries; and misfortune brings together the rich and poor. Set in Philadelphia in 1965, among two families of African-Americans, Tempest Rising conveys a powerful sense of the social world in which its characters live. Yet it is hardly a realistic history of the sixties. Instead, the novel rollicks from Society Hill to 52nd and Walnut Streets, entertaining as it instructs. 
   There’s an art to writing a page-turner, as McKinney-Whetstone clearly knows. Who can resist the beguiling storyteller’s convention in which the narrator tells the end of the story at the beginning, then skips back to the start of the action? The reader has to continue to find out what happened in between. Or that of describing the ideal situation early on, then scuttling it — the reader reads on, wanting to know if perfection can be achieved again. 
   As Tempest Rising opens, we are told that the Victorian house, called Heaven, which has been “waiting patiently for Clarise and the girls to get back home,” will finally welcome its charges. Already we have questions: Who are Clarise and the girls? Do they have a husband and father? What difficulty drove them from their fine, expensive home? In just a few pages, the narrator skips backward to paint a portrait of a fortunate and handsome family. 
   Clarise, known for her good taste, was raised lovingly by four unmarried uncles and aunts. Finch, her doting husband, has a knack for making money, which he spends on lingerie for his wife and brownies for his girls. The three daughters, Shern, Victoria and Bliss, are graced with fine hair, good teeth, strong legs, and the nicest clothes their wealthy parents’ money can buy. Even the ever-protective aunts and uncles approve of Clarise’s life: “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, is he?” one aunt says to another, speaking of Finch. 
   “You said it, sister. Boy more like a spoon than a knife.” 
   “Shish,” says an uncle. “Spoons are better than knives anyhow.” 
   “That’s right,” the other uncle says. “They don’t cut, and they feed you well.” 
   Could life be any sweeter? But before chapter one is done, Finch has died, Clarise has apparently tried to commit suicide, and the three girls have been taken into foster care. 
   For the rest of the book, Clarise and her daughters will struggle to be reunited, even as the girls face danger while in the care of Mae and her daughter Ramona, their unhappy foster family. Along the way, as in Dickens, the lessons get taught. With the girls, Ramona will discover she has the capacity to be deeply cruel; she’ll also find that her own mean-spiritedness can be melted by compassion. Mae will acknowledge her darkest deeds, then learn that she can love her daughter again. Clarise, forced by necessity, will decide she wants to live; and Tyrone, Ramona’s boyfriend, will stop copying his father long enough to teach the older man how to be a better father and mate. 
   At times, the wisdom the book affords can be had too cheaply. Characters suddenly state the point, as when Ramona explains her own hostility toward the girls to Clarise: “Because I couldn’t act like you, you know, like a real mother; because my mother couldn’t either. Because we didn’t know how to be mother and daughter to each other. Because sometimes things happen to people that in an instant change who they are and they spend a lifetime trying to get back to who they used to be — ” 
   Yet the book depicts dysfunctional families so vividly that even the narrative’s own heavy hand doesn’t weigh the story down too much. The characters have known such violence and deprivation that the narrative’s occasional truisms have a kind of gaudy chutzpah. At the crescendo, order is restored to the world when Clarise and the girls hug and cry, and Ramona throws herself into her own mother’s arms, screaming “Mommie!” 
   Familial love conquers all, it seems — except that the reader can’t forget the beatings Ramona received, or the crimes her mother committed, or the changes separation has wrought in Clarise’s girls. Tempest Rising is a deliberate blend of wit, horror, pragmatism, and optimism — an artful mix for an artful story about the ways we learn, and sometimes re-learn, how to live. 
   If Tempest Rising reminds one of a 19th-century novel, Lorene Cary’s Pride is decidedly contemporary. Despite what the two books have in common — similar publication dates; stories set in Philadelphia; authors who are African- American women, and, incidentally, instructors at Penn as well as being alumnae — Pride can seem almost the antithesis of a book such as Tempest Rising, in fact. 
   Set mostly in Philadelphia and Chester County in the 1990s, Pride tells the story of four women, friends since grade school, who have recently turned 40. Each chapter takes the point of view of one of the women; the narrative threads that run through the book — an interchangeable cast of characters, the revelation of an adulterous affair — are woven into each woman’s separate story. In plot, style, and theme, then, Pride abjures the tightly-knit in favor of loose ends, complications, and ambiguities. Take the word pride, for example. Each of the four main characters lives out at least a few, often contradictory, definitions of it. Roz, who starts the book, is the loyal and ambitious wife of Hiram, who has just been invited to switch political parties and run for Congress. Roz’s pride in their lives together is so great that she has never been able to talk to Hiram about how he cheats on her. To do so would be to admit to humiliation, uncertainty, confusion — emotions that Roz either cannot or does not entertain. 
   As the campaign starts, and after a confrontation with her daughter, Roz finally acknowledges that Hiram has hurt her. She swallows her public pride and demands that he be faithful. In another novel, Roz’s story might end here, at the moment she learns to stand up for herself. After all, Hiram agrees, suggesting that the girl gets what she wants if she just exercises what one might call pride in self. Instead, Cary lets us know what Roz herself knows: Hiram may have promised to stay true because he has to. He’s running for office as a family man and can’t afford a protracted fight with his wife, nor the scandal discovery would bring. Roz’s victory is tempered by what one might call the politics of her marriage. Roz’s friends, Tamara, Arneatha and Audrey, face similar complexities in the chapters to follow, leading one to believe that Cary set out deliberately to tell stories in which morals are provisional and characters too multifaceted to be inspirational. 
   If at times the novel seems almost too diffuse, and the narrative self-conscious, one has to admire Cary’s insistence that all of her characters be as smart and imperfect as we are in life. At its best, Cary’s style allows her to depict contemporary life with wit and passion, as when Tamara takes a nauseating and hilarious trip through white Disneyland. It’s also a pleasure to be in the hands of a novelist who knows what distinguishes her work. A character in Pride mans a table at Odunde, the African festival, where she sells novels by Cary’s peers to a black woman who has just been divorced. “Nothin’ like reading,” the woman says. The woman tells Tamara how since she got divorced she’s also been going to church and walking in the morning. Tamara calls the conversation “the female self-congratulation exchange.” In Cary’s writing, bonding moments such as these are worth noting, but it’s the life they fit into, complicated and fraught with misconnections, that is the point. 

Kerry Sherin, C’87, is a writer and resident coordinator of the Kelly Writers House.

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.

By Russel Like, C/W’89. 
Highland Park, N.J.: Brunswick Galaxy Press, 1998. 253 pp., $12.95.
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   It’s about a century in the future, when the extraterrestrial Gruumsbaggians, who have accidentally destroyed human civilization, try to restore it in an effort that might best be characterized by the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The aliens use books and videotapes which they find on Earth to guide their efforts, but they are, after all, alien, and they frequently misconstrue the things they see and read. As a result they end up trying to force the few remaining humans on Earth, most of whom live in Jamesburg in Central New Jersey (the largest city left on Earth), to do many ludicrous things. After the Blue does not aim to be conventional science fiction but a whimsical satire of contemporary society. Author Russel Like grew up in Jamesburg. After the Blue is his first novel. 

By Barbara Caleen Hansen and Shauna S. Roberts, C’78. 
Alexandria, Va.: American Diabetes Association, 1998. 288 pp., $19.95.
   Like many aspects of life with diabetes, losing weight takes extra effort and thought. How will losing weight affect your insulin or diabetes pill dose? How can you best cut back on calories? Can people with diabetes use weight-loss drugs? The answers to these questions and others are provided in this guide, which offers advice on choosing the right target weight, measuring weight-loss progress the best way, and maintaining an active lifestyle. Roberts is a science writer and editor who specializes in diabetes. Hansen is a professor of physiology and director of the Obesity and Diabetes Research Center at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine.

Science, Society, and Disease. 
By Robert A. Aronowitz, M.D., Faculty. 
Cambridge, England: University of Cambridge Press, 1998. 272 pp., $29.95.
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   Aronowitz, a visiting scholar at Penn’s Center for Bioethics, investigates the social and clinical factors that determine what constitutes a “legitimate illness” in the 20th century. By reviewing six case studies of diseases that have emerged within the past 50 years, from coronary heart disease to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Aronowitz examines the historical and cultural factors that influence how doctors think about illness; how illnesses are recognized, named, classified, and finally, what they mean in individual and social context. These factors play a great role in “legitimizing” an illness, although they are seldom examined. For example, in the mid-20th century, a set of diseases changed their identity from being “psychosomatic” to “autoimmune”: ulcerative colitis, asthma, hyperthyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, and others. Few people have viewed this change as a general trend, instead believing that each disease’s meaning changed as a consequence of biomedical insights. Looked at historically and collectively, however, it becomes apparent that there are larger, more general, forces at work that have determined research programs, public health activities, clinical decisions, and even the patient’s experience of illness. Aronowitz serves as associate editor of the Journal of General Internal Medicine and is currently working on a history of breast cancer risk.

The Making of an Industrial Working Class. 
By Kenneth M. Straus, Gr’90. 
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. 355 pp., $55.00.
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   Straus, assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, weaves many threads in Russian social history to develop a new theory of working-class formation in the years of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. In so doing, he addresses a long-standing debate among historians by suggesting new answers to an old question: Was there social support for the Stalin regime among the Soviet working class during the 1930s, and if so, why? Straus argues that the keys for interpreting Stalinism lie in occupational specialization, on the one hand, and community organization, on the other. He focuses on the daily life of the new Soviet workers in the factory and community, arguing that the most significant new trends saw peasants becoming open-hearth steel workers, housewives becoming auto assembly line workers and machine operators, and youth training en masse rather than in individualized apprenticeships for all types of occupations in factory-based vocational schools. Straus’s analysis of Soviet social history suggests that Stalinist-forced industrialization and Soviet proletarianization is best understood within a comparative European framework, in which the theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber elucidate both the broad similarities with Western trends and the striking exceptional aspects of the Soviet experience.

A Practical Approach. 
By Benjamin H. Natelson, M.D., C’63, M’67. 
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. 208 pp., $25.00 (cloth); $15.00 (paper).
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   Living in the fast-paced 1990s, most of us know what it is to be exhausted. Fatigue seems to be a normal part of our lives when we are overactive, have physical or emotional problems, face stress, or suffer from insomnia. Natelson, a specialist in fatigue disorders, explains what causes fatigue, how to combat it, and what patients should know when consulting a doctor about symptoms. He explains why eating late, drinking too much alcohol or coffee, or becoming accustomed to sedatives can disturb sleep for some people. He suggests do’s and don’ts to promote better sleeping and reviews the efficacy of prescription and non-prescription drugs as sleep aids; and outlines a program for fatigue sufferers to identify and manage stress. Natelson, medical director of the New Jersey Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Center and the New Jersey Gulf War Research Center, also addresses the concerns of the increasing numbers of people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a strange lingering disease of unknown origin in which patients are afflicted with a pervasive fatigue that lasts more than six months and produces a substantial decrease in school, work, social, or personal activities. He discusses possible causes, physical and emotional symptoms, and an array of medical treatments for CFS. 

Drafting the New Archaeology 
By Paula L.W. Sabloff, Faculty. 
Norman. Okla: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 108 pp., $19.95.
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   In these 1982 interviews Lew Binford, father of the New Archaeology, explains how in the early 1960s he pioneered the change from traditional culture history — archaeologists’ educated guesses about past people’s lives — to a more rigorous detection of social and cultural systems in the archaeological record. At the urging of Sabloff, Binford delves into his personal history to describe the people and circumstances that led him to develop and propound his revolutionary ideas. He describes his years growing up in Virginia and Appalachia, revealing how the early influences of family, teachers, and the Boy Scouts gave him the strength of character to challenge authorities in archaeology even before he had earned his doctorate in 1964. His recollections of the army and undergraduate and graduate experiences provide insights into his efforts to reorient American archaeology. Binford’s intellectual legacy is placed in context in a postscript by archaeologist Jeremy A. Sabloff, C’64, the Charles K. Williams II Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Paula Sabloff, a political anthropologist, is senior research scientist in the Museum and adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at the University.

By Mary Price Lee, CW’56, GEd’67, Richard S. Lee, and Carol Beam. 
ARCO, 1997. 200 pp., $15.95.
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   This guide, compiled by nationally known experts, provides the inside story on all of the best job opportunities in the field of crime fighting. It explores about 100 action-packed careers in law enforcement, criminal justice, private security, and cyberspace crime detection. The authors have written a wide variety of career guides.

African-American Leadership and the Struggle for Urban Political Power 
By Richard A. Keiser, C/G’80. 
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 244 pp., $39.95.
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   Why have African Americans attained political empowerment in some cities and in others remained subordinated or had their achievements rolled back? Why do some cities have many black leaders with multi-racial appeal while other cities have none? Subordination or Empowermentresponds to these questions through detailed historical examinations of the African-American struggle for political power in Chicago, Gary, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Mixing quantitative and qualitative data, Keiser, associate professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., argues that electoral competition among white factions has created opportunities for black leaders to win genuine political empowerment and avoid subordination. Black leaders gain legitimacy among whites by mobilizing black voters that produce the margin of victory and earn the support of black constituents by delivering on the political agenda of the black community. When electoral competition among whites does not exist, black votes lose their electoral leverage, leading to the rise of extra-electoral strategies. Keiser’s theory of leadership formation explains the current appeal of black separatism at the local and national levels and the consequent rise of leaders such as Louis Farrakhan. The work offers a rejoinder to Cornel West’s critique of black leadership in Race Matters.

How Dixieland Jazz Works 
By Tex Wyndham. (Illustrated and published by Dan, C’51, and Sis Polin.) 
Seattle, Wash.: Light, Words, and Music Publishing, 1997. 346 pp., $19.95.
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   Texas Shout draws on Tex Wyndham’s experiences over the decades as a writer, bandleader, and performer of Dixieland and ragtime. It includes all of the “Texas Shout” columns that Wyndham wrote for West Coast Rag/The American Rag from 1989 to 1996. West Coast Rag began as an 11-times-a-year tabloid and acted as a social calendar for the Dixieland and ragtime festival scene on the West Coast. While retaining its basic focus on festivals, it quickly became national in scope and increased its circulation until it was one of the country’s two leading independent periodicals focusing on Dixieland and ragtime. In mid-1995, it changed ownership and was renamed The American Rag. Dan and Sis Polin, owners of Dan Jazz Enterprises, are Wyndham’s producers.

By Carl E. Bartecchi, M.D., M’64, and Robert W. Schrier, M.D. 
Dallas, Texas: EMIS Medical Publishers, 1997. 207 pp., $14.95.
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   With the idea that the best doctor is yourself, Bartecchi and Schrier, a physician team for more than a decade, have written this book to make the best scientific and practical information available for individuals who desire to make reasonable efforts to extend the quality and length of their lives. They cover such topics as “Aspirin: The Magic Potion?”, “Alcohol: Do Benefits Outweigh the Dangers?”, stroke prevention, bone disease, and domestic violence. Bartecchi, a practitioner of internal medicine for more than 30 years, is clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Schrier has been professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Colorado for 20 years. 

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