Two more Philip Roth books, relatively recent ones. The first that I read, “Nemesis” (2010), is the story of a Jewish teenager in Newark caught up in terrible times. It’s the mid-1940s, and a war is raging in Europe. One of his closest friends has already been killed in battle. He is not there because of poor eyesight, and is left at home where, just out of school, he has a job running a summer playground. But in 1944 in Newark, there was another problem – polio. Polio strikes several children at the playground – one dies. He quits his job and takes over the water instructor role at a summer camp in the Poconos. Polio strikes there as well; even he comes down with it, a bad case that affects his limbs and even more so the arc of his life. The second book deals with a somewhat later period. “Indignation” (2008) takes place in the 1950s, during the Korean War. Again,, the central character is a young man from Newark who leaves his local college after the first year to escape his overbearing butcher father and see more of the world. He winds up as one of the few Jews in a small Ohio school, where he finds the academics easy, getting along with his classmates sometimes difficult, and where he picks the wrong girl to get involved with. The school has a mandatory chapel attendance requirement. He learns he can pay someone to attend in his place and sign him in, which he does. But he is caught, and expelled, and winds up in Korea, where he is killed…….after which he writes his book. I found both of these books engaging and recommend them.
I read Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (2014), about the end of life, written by the well published physician/author. It’s a beautifully written book, and talks about the dangers and tragedies of over treatment when patients would often prefer much less. Death can be eased in many cases, by letting natural events take their course (except for palliative, pain management care) and, in fact, in many instances, the overly aggressive treatment not only fails and causes unnecessary agony, but actually shortens the life it was meant to extend. No easy answers, as sometimes the treatment works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But hospice care, and other environments where the patient is able to assert some control and where suffering is mitigated – this is what seems to work best.
Fernande Leboucher’s “Incredible Mission” (1969) is the amazing story of a French Capuchin priest, Father Marie-Benoit, who – first in Marseilles and then in Rome – becomes the coordinator of a series of largely successful attempts to hide Jews from the Nazis, giving them false passport documents, identification papers, food rationing cards and more. He helps some escape from prison camps in France (including the author’s husband, who is eventually caught again and sent to Auschwitz), and helps hundreds, perhaps thousands, hide in Rome during the Nazi roundup there. His willingness to do this, and the large networks he creates to help prepare the paperwork, and hide the hunted, is indeed extraordinary. He died in 1990 at 94. A book hard to find, but much worth while reading.