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Search tags: ethics-and-morality
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review 2017-10-07 18:29
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello,Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.

 

I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

 

Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

 

The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 

 

There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2017-05-27 18:05
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink

It was hard to put down this impressive work of journalism that focuses on events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As hurricane season approaches it begs the question: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters in the U.S.? The epilogue to the book, written a few years ago, suggests in some ways we are, but in important ways we are not.

 

Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order (belatedly) given by the mayor of New Orleans as Katrina approached. Many staff, patients, family members, and even pets sheltered at the hospitals (lesson the first: evacuate before the storm hits), including Memorial. As the title indicates, it would be five days before all were evacuated. After power loss, the generators eventually failed as they were in the basement, where the water levels rose once the levees broke. Though they had food and bottled water, the hospital went without running water, air conditioning, working plumbing, and the power needed to run vital medical equipment.

 

Evacuation aid via helicopters and boats was erratic or turned away by staff at points. Communication at all levels was unreliable; rumors swarmed, including that New Orleans was under martial law and looting and violence were everywhere. The staff went without much sleep as they continued to care for patients. The bad decision was made to leave the sickest patients, including those with DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, last for evacuation, with the exception of neonates. Healthier patients (though some still critical) left first. Family members were encouraged and even pressured to leave their loved ones, assured the patients would be cared for.

 

Soon after the disaster, there was a reckoning. Or, I should say, an attempt at a reckoning. Troubled reports of irresponsible and ethically questionable decisions being made at hospitals and nursing homes arose, including euthanasia at Memorial. 40-some patients had died there, and about half were later found to have high levels of morphine as well as Versed, a sedative, in their systems. Were they euthanized, and by whom?

 

In addition to covering events at the hospital as reported by those who were there, Fink covers the development of the legal case against a particular doctor and two nurses accused of second degree homicide. Reading about what happened at the hospital, the good and, mostly, the bad, is heartrending and horrifying, impossible to look away from, like a car accident. Learning what does and does not happen afterwards infuriated me; my sympathies were with those who'd lost loved ones, who don't quite have closure. I sympathized also with nurses so traumatized by those five days that they could no longer practice.

 

Fink contextualizes Katrina as well as the ethics of decisions made. She profiles key players, letting their own words speak for them. I don't pretend to read much non-fiction, but it seems to me her work is exceptionally well researched, every effort made to fact-check and communicate with those involved. The book evolved from a piece she did for ProPublica and the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer. Regardless, I'm sure there's been a range of reactions. If you google the topic, you'll find a website by/for the doctor arrested who continues to deny wrongdoing, with a link to another site that proclaims "the truth" of what happened. I didn't bother clicking.

 

Mostly I think about the contrasting example of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, who lost fewer patients despite having more, with additional patients delivered to them. I think of proposed (and adopted) legislation or protocols that would shield physicians from legal ramifications of unethical decisions made during a disaster. I think of the following quote, with which I agree:

 

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

 

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