Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Look What the Tide Washed In

Okay, folks, it's been a long, long time. I hope that I haven't lost you all during the time that I've been saving up enough money to buy another book. (Since Cap'n Ahab isn't interested in my wo-manatee's curves, I have to pay his fee in cold, hard cash) This week he swung by and dropped off two books The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman and The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger.

The Star Machine is about Hollywood and the Studio System of the 30's and 40's. It very clearly explains how the major studios created stars like Lana Turner, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. It did seriously work like a machine. A young wanna-be was signed to a seven year contract by the studio and for those seven years, he or she had no autonomy. Hair color, style of dress, cosmetic surgery, etc were all under the control of the studio bosses. Interview answers were scripted. Movie roles were, of course, chosen by the studio. After being signed, the actor was given a small role in one or two films to test their audience appeal. Then, if the audience noticed the player, there would be a starring role. If the young star balked at any of this, they were put on suspension without pay until they agreed. Since they were bound to that studio and couldn't make movies elsewhere, they were screwed unless they did exactly as the studio said.

Ms. Basinger splits her book into several different sections, each dealing with a different star and a problem they had with the studio system. Errol Flynn, for example, was not happy with his endless swashbuckling, tight-wearing roles. He was from an acting family, had talent and wanted to be an "actor". Plus he had a wild personal life that the studio found hard to keep under wraps. Lana Turner had a similar problem. Deanna Durbin was fed endless kid roles well after she was grown and married. Some stars were destroyed by the Machine, but some (Loretta Young, Irene Dunne)managed to escape the system and still have careers. Given the way stars arise today, reading about Hollywood of this era is like reading about another planet.

The best part of the book, for me, is reading about all the movies I've never watched. I read about Tyrone Power and Netflix "Witness for the Prosecution". I read about Lana Turner and Netflix "The Bad and the Beautiful." This and the tasty tidbits of Hollywood gossip, made this a fun book. If any of you boys need the perfect gift for Grandma this Mother's Day, I hope you'll keep this book in mind.

The other book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down has been a customer favorite over the last few years. I've had my eyes on it for several years as well, being nothing but a customer at heart. It concerns the clash of cultures between the California health care system and the parents of an epileptic Hmong child. I don't know that I can sum things up without making the family sound simple and stupid but Fadiman does a wonderful job of presenting their case. It's obvious that she has a lot of respect for the family and their culture and is wonderful at presenting everyone's side fairly. The reader can feel the distrust the family has toward western medicine as easily as the frustration of the doctors for patients who don't follow their directions.

The child, Lia Lee, had her first epileptic seizure as a young baby, less than a year old if I remember correctly. The Hmong believe epilepsy to be caused by the soul leaving the body. In order to return the soul, one must sacrifice an animal (trading their soul for the errant one) and perform various rituals. The epileptic is consider special and more in touch with the spirit world than the rest of us. We, most of us anyway, believe it to be caused by a neurological fuck-up and can only be helped by drugs, drugs, drugs. This was the course followed by the medical staff involved in Lia's care and it didn't seem to work too well. Lia's family didn't speak or read English, couldn't follow the dosing directions (three different kinds of pills at various times of day, at varying dosages), were completely confused by the doctor's directions, and suspicious of things to begin with. When the doctors performed blood tests they found that the levels of drugs in Lia's system were below the helpful amount and kept changing drugs and dosages trying to make things easier. The Lees saw this as proof that the doctors didn't know what they were doing. My brothers would refer to this whole situation as a clusterfuck.

I'm still reading this fascinating book and therefore don't know the outcome (although I suspect it's not going to be a pleasant one). I think that the thing I'll take away with me is a question Fadiman asks. She talks to several doctors in the area about their experiences dealing with the Hmong patients they see. One simplifies things, giving less than perfect care so that his patients will have some care at all. Others give the same care they would to middle class, English speaking, cultural-Americans and hope that their directions are followed. Fadiman asks "Which would have been more discriminatory, to deprive Lia of the optimal care that another child would have received, or to fail to tailor her treatment in such a way that her family would be most likely to comply with it?" It's a damn fine question.

Steve has provided my with this week's reading (Nah,nah, Cap'n Ahab) The Terror by Dan Simmons and Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. More to follow...