Indie Book Reviews and a Look at Indie Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Book Review Editor
Book: Losing Helen: An Essay
Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, September 2016 ($14.00 paperback, 110 pages). ISBN 978-1-59709-990-5
Author: Carol Becker
Carol Becker is Dean of Faculty and Professor of the Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts. She was previously Dean of Faculty and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, as well as Professor of Liberal Arts, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She writes and lectures on cultural criticism involving art in society, feminism, education, and global culture, as illustrated by the titles of her four books: The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change (1990, reissued in 2014; translated into seven languages); Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, Gender, and Anxiety; Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art; and Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production (essays). She has also edited The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility and coedited The Artist in Society: Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities (with Kathy Acker).
Publisher: Red Hen Press
Red Hen annually publishes about twenty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Cofounded by Kate Gale and Mark E. Cull in 1994, the press has a publication list of over 400 titles. Red Hen, which gives four literary awards each year, has established a program called Writing in the Schools. Manuscripts may be submitted with or without an agent. “We’re looking for novels, memoir, creative nonfiction, hybrid works, and story, essay, and poetry collections of exceptional literary merit that demonstrate a high level of mastery.” Submission guidelines are on the website.
on a lotus leaf,
Such a slim volume. Yet within it, Carol Becker captures the essence of grief. She divides this essay about her mother’s death into four sections based on the ancient classical elements of Fire (“Dust to Dust”), Earth (“Burial”), Water (“The Storm”), and Air (“Grace”).
Becker, living in Chicago, is anxious about her 97-year-old mother, living in Fort Lauderdale. She does everything she can to provide a graceful exit for this woman who ushered her into the world. As her mother’s strength diminishes, making her prone to falls, Becker wings it between the two cities often—going to the hospital, locating a caregiver, setting up hospice. Finally Becker’s prepared.
At least, that’s what she and her mother think—until Wilma arrives. This Category 5 hurricane, with 125-mph winds, whammed Broward County with such force that Becker and her dying mother, along with 98 percent of South Florida, have no electricity for two weeks. Wilma trashes the Sunshine State for over $29 billion.
In a hurricane’s eye, our senses can heighten awareness of minutiae. Becker records swirling details. A neighbor asks if she can have her mother’s chairs when she dies. “I could take them now if you don’t mind,” she adds. Becker tactfully suggests waiting until after the funeral. As the end nears, Becker notices her mother oversedated with morphine, “when her consciousness should be most clear.” After her mother dies, Becker hears the hospice worker outside on her cell phone, shattering the sacred space. After her mother’s physical body is taken away, so is Becker’s breath at the enormity of her loss. She carries her mother’s ashes to the airport, where she faces a new hurdle getting them through security. Finally she places her mother to rest beside her father in the cemetery.
Next she fears losing memories of their life, but that’s not what Mom has in mind. Thus begins a new mother/daughter relationship. Things happen that Becker can’t explain—dreams, appearances, sensations of her mother—wordless messages that convey distinct meanings. Becker remembers Simone Weil’s words: “a break in the ceiling.”
Many who have lost such a close relationship, bearing witness during the dying process, will likely relate to Becker’s narrative. By examining the periods before, during, and after her mother dies, Becker tries to make sense of that shared experience, marshaling weighty writers such as John Milton, Theodore Roethke, Samuel Beckett, Roland Barthes, and Herman Melville. There on the pages, they all meditate and contemplate. Mull things over. Reflect. Consider.
Losing Helen is the record of a daughter’s mission to bring dignity to her mother’s death. Using words, Carol Becker comes to understand suffering, liberating both herself and her mother during that final journey.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher in Austin, Texas. She is former production editor of Contemporary Psychology book review journal. Her book reviews have been published widely, including in The Kansas City Star, Austin American-Statesman, Florida Times-Journal Magazine, and online in River Teeth, Women’s Memoirs, Draft No. 4, and 100 Memoirs.
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