In Review: March 24, 1999
A birthday party turns tempestuous
Frederick Buechner '47
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," declares Prospero in The Tempest, and Kenzie Maxwell, the protagonist of Frederick Buechner's 30th book, The Storm, would agree with this sentiment. In this slim, graceful novel are all the elements of a Shakespearean romance: people's lives divide and intersect, the possibility of love dangles like ripe tropical fruit, and long-lost relatives are reconciled. Only instead of occurring on some enchanted atoll, this plot takes root in Florida on Plantation Island, a modern-day retreat for the privileged, run by Violet Sickert, a rich widow with a whim of steel.
The cast of characters stars Kenzie, once a young writer of promise, now an aging, regretful man, married for the third time but haunted by the memory of his one true love, a graffiti artist named Kia who died in giving birth to their out-of-wedlock daughter, Bree. His current wife, Willow, also has a child, Averill, from an earlier union, now a 40-year-old; he is disaffected, vegetarian, meditative -- a '60s type transplanted to the 1990s on this genteel time-warp of an island. Estranged from Kenzie is Kenzie's older brother, Dalton, a retired Columbia law professor who has a distant stepson, Nandy (like Shakespeare, Buechner has a taste for family foils and parallels).
Buechner, whose previous novels include Godric and On the Road with the Archangel, has fun here with the Shakespearean template of The Tempest. The plot mostly concerns the nature of reconciliation. The focus is Kenzie's 70th-birthday party, complicated by the petty intrigues of Violet Sickert, who wants to ruin the gala event. The characters are no mere ninepins: all are accorded a specific weight and detailed background to give them solidity. Looming behind is a more numinous presence, however, expressed as everything from a Zen-inspired nothingness to a mysterious waft of cool air. Coincidental meetings become patterns, which in turn become the hidden order of life itself. In fact, The Storm evokes the 1930s novels of Charles Williams, whose characters grapple with Christian mysticism. Buechner himself is a Presbyterian minister and has written extensively on religion.
The novel best illustrates clashes between character and morality and how they change over time. But the guiding principle isn't rigid dogma so much as an open receptivity. Or, as Kenzie points out to Willow, "I believe in everything.... It's why I am never bored." The Storm is never boring, either. Despite its gusty Florida locale, it's chiefly preoccupied by the tempests within.
-- David Galef '81
David Galef's most recent books are the novel Turning Japanese and Second Thoughts, an edited anthology of essays on rereading.
On the occasion of the 90th birthday of media man Erik Barnouw '29, Wide Angle published a Festschrift in his honor. With contributions from scholars and colleagues, the volume illuminates the life and work of Barnouw, while showering him with reverent accolades. Barnouw, who studied English at Princeton, has written 15 books, including History of Broadcasting in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1966-70), and an autobiography, Media Marathon: A Twentieth Century Memoir (Duke University Press, 1996). Barnouw has worked and lectured around the world. (Johns Hopkins University Press, $8)
Trying to engage life while living in a consumer culture
Early on in States of Control, female lead Lisa (Jennifer van Dyck) explains to a friend why she still buys 78's. "All this new technology only highlights our inability to hear," she says. "A great listener would...listen to one passage at a time, refusing to move on until she completely understood what she'd already heard. With 78's you couldn't play a record while you were doing something else because you had to pay attention. When LP's were introduced everything became background music." Is it possible to live an engaged life in a consumer culture filled with background noise? That's the difficult question writer/director/producer Zack Winestine '81 sets out to explore in his thought-provoking debut feature-length film.
The story centers on Lisa, who feels trapped in her sterile Manhattan life. Her job in a theater is unchallenging, her film-professor husband is impotent, and she's unhappy with the novel she has written in her spare time. At first she turns to friends for advice. She befriends a director whose anarchistic credo -- "The others, they want property, permanence. We want no systems, no order, no platitudes, and no programs" -- appeals to her. Other friends encourage Lisa to pursue her art, leave her husband, or leave Manhattan for Los Angeles. But Lisa sees that these aren't real solutions. "No more stories," she writes in her diary. "They are just an excuse for the failures of my own life." Seeking a more active engagement with the world, Lisa starts experimenting with the way she lives. She turns vegetarian. She watches pornography. She forces herself to stay awake for days until her senses sharpen. Gradually Lisa's experiments escalate, building toward a much larger, violent act that will change her life forever.
Winestine's background is as a director of photo-graphy (among his credits is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which he worked on during a semester off from Princeton), so it's no surprise that States of Control employs rich visual imagery. Shots of turbulent skies, leaves, and flames illustrate Lisa's desire to intensely experience the physical world. Often the camera lingers on van Dyck's face, capturing Lisa's subtle shifts of mood and recalling the style of German expressionist films of the 1920s and '30s. As Lisa abandons the social world of books and plays and conversation, the film similarly abandons words. In the last part of the film there's almost no dialogue, only images of Lisa leaving her Manhattan life to take up an independent life of radical action.
States of Control isn't a film for Hollywood blockbuster buffs: fans of disaster movies and romantic comedies will find this slow-paced, introspective film frustrating. But for anyone tired of cookie-cutter characters and unchallenging plots, States of Control has a lot to offer. (In fact, States of Control has already found success on the film-festival circuit: it premiered at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, and has been selected by the Melbourne Film Festival and the International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg, among others.) It's a carefully crafted film in which nothing is irrelevant or gratuitous; as Lisa would put it, there's no "background noise." And it's refreshingly ambitious in its willingness to ask big questions. It's a film that makes you pay attention.
-- Tamsin Todd '92
States of Control (writer/director/producer Zack Winestine '81, coproducer JoAnne Pawlawski '80) will be released by Phaedre Cinema in April 1999.
Health care used to involve the patient, the doctor, and insurance companies. Now managed care has made the health care process far more complex. The Websites of physicians J.D. Robinson '65 (www.md-1.com/ahac/) and Ron Riner '71 (www.rinergroup.com) show how entrepreneurial Tigers respond to the, well, mess.
Robinson is director of the American Health Advisory Center (AHAC) in Washington, D.C. The group works with patients who want an independent appraisal, or health advisory, of the care they get (or don't get) through managed-care programs. Robinson stresses that the appraisal is free of the time and cost pressures applied by managed care to cases. Robinson and his staff give patients and their providers what he terms a "heads up" about the care and its deficiencies. Writing in a style both understated and biting, Robinson says of the need for a health advisory, "In a system weighted towards doing the minimum, it is not possible, in most instances, for an individual to realize what is not being done."
The idea and its execution sound confusing at first, so Robinson provides explanations of his ideas and case studies. In one, he worked for three years with an HIV-positive woman as she grappled with her HMO, giving her the information required to get the specialist access and drug regimen she needed. The study includes Robinson's write-up and the woman's own comments on her treatment and AHAC's role. Robinson's description of the changing health care system and its terminology is clear and valuable for laypeople trying to sort out their choices. In sum, a punchy site on a topic of wide concern.
(In one of those odd bits of information found on Websites, Robinson's bio concludes, "Jody Robinson is married to singer composer Potomac Red and is the father of four young children.")
The riner group in St. Louis provides "health care advisory and management consulting." Riner's site comes at health care from the perspective of the practitioner and group whose concerns are split between medicine and commerce. A Riner quote on the site highlights that relationship: "Health care business solutions need to make clinical sense. In health care, good medicine and good patient care is good business." The dual concerns shape the site's content, as well as Riner's work. It seeks more "efficiency and effectiveness" in practices. In staking out a niche, Riner says, "We specialize in professional-to-professional communication, strategic planning, information exchange and education concerning the business of medicine and the successful implementation and translation of business issues into efficient and productive clinical practice."
The site covers the basics of the practice, although it lacks case studies that show Riner's accomplishments. The list of links is extensive. The site provides online versions of Riner's Mediscene newsletter, which primarily covers the business trends such as practice acquisition, Medicare payments, and liability, with the occasional chart on cancer and mortality trends.
-- Van Wallach '80
The horror must be known in human terms:
the blinding, maiming, burning, vaporising...
sixty-six thousand men, women, children
killed immediately or died soon afterwards.
That many more, so horribly injured:
suffering radiation sickness -- many carried
mutations in their genes, affecting unborn
generations. The suffering untold,
immeasurable by any calculus
of pain, incalculable their psychological
suffering: the hibakusha,
explosion-affected persons they are called.
At the epicenter of the city's heart
four square miles were utterly destroyed.
An excerpt from an epic poem called My Hiroshima, by Richard J. Schoeck *49, an adjunct professor of English at the University of Kansas. Of his poem, Schoeck explains, "I have endeavored to write the story of the bombing of Hiroshima as an epic, while construing the genre as multi-faceted and demanding many voices, as well as introducing various lyric forms. I have drawn upon my own personal experience (sometimes simply contemporaneous, but always, I trust, at least thematically relevant) in order to add one further thread of unity to the poem." (Mellen Poetry Press, $14.95)
Relating to a teenager's growing pains
Julian Thompson '49's novels address contemporary issues
Mental illness, white supremacists, filial devotion, and budding romance: that, in a nutshell, is what Julian F. Thompson '49 tackles in his 16th novel, Brothers.
Sound heavy duty for seventh through 12th graders to handle? Not to Thompson. Big issues and relationships are what concern teens, he says, a conclusion he draws from 24 years as an educator and coach. To this he adds decision-making situations, occasional irreverence for authority, and a strong dose of humor. In his young adult classic, The Grounding of Group 6, Thompson created a satiric thriller about teens sent to a boarding school so that their parents could be permanently rid of them. In Band of Angels, named an American Library Association Best Book in 1986, a cadre of teens campaign against nuclear war, unaware that government agents are trying to kill them. In Brothers (Knopf, 1998), 17-year-old Chris journeys outwardly cross country and inwardly toward maturity to rescue his older, mentally ill brother Cam, who has fallen in with a militia group.
What fuels Thompson's writing is his sympathy for teenagers and their growing pains. Of the many titles he's held, the one he values most is "friend." "I have their talk in my head," Thompson says. "I've got great respect for teenagers. In our society, many people judge them harshly, rage against things like if they wear a baseball cap backwards. To me they've always been so honest, so sweet, so open."
While still a teen himself, Thompson coached baseball, and during free time from history studies at Princeton he visited juveniles at the State Home for Boys in Jamesburg, New Jersey. After graduation, he returned to his high school, the Lawrenceville School, to teach and direct boarding school students. Later he helped 13 expelled public-school students, accused of inciting the 1967 riots in Trenton, earn diplomas. He also helped a group of teens found an alternative high school called Changes in East Orange, New Jersey, where for seven years he served as administrator, teacher, counselor, even janitor. "I understood where they were coming from," he says of these youngsters. "It was just given to me to be that way, to be sympathetic to feelings adolescents have as they try to work out where they are trying to go."
Thompson's fascination with writing began with his father, Julian F. Thompson '11, an attorney who wrote plays as a hobby (The Warrior's Husband featured Katharine Hepburn in her first Broadway starring role). The senior Thompson died when his son was 12. Scholarships to Lawrenceville and Princeton financed Thompson's education, but he recalls often feeling like an outsider in those worlds. He found his niche working with teens.
Thompson left Lawrenceville once to write an unpublished novel about the Cuban revolution. At Changes, now defunct, Thompson offered a writing seminar in which he also completed the assignments he gave his pupils. Later he decided to give writing a second shot. He and his wife, Polly, an oil painter he hired as art teacher for Changes, moved to Vermont, where they have a winter house in Burlington and a summer retreat in southern Vermont.
A Columbia Pictures movie option for The Grounding of Group 6 never materialized, but Thompson still hopes a film might be made someday. In the meantime, he's at work on his next book, a pirate adventure in the Bermuda Triangle, due out after his 50th reunion.
-- Maria LoBiondo
The Sinus Sourcebook, by Deborah F. Rosin '85 (Lowell House, $26.00) -- A layperson's guide to sinus and sinus-related problems, including symptoms and prevention techniques. Rosin is a physician in central New Jersey.
The True Story of Grizzly Adams, by Robert M. McClung '39 (Beech Tree Books, $4.95) -- A biography of the famous frontiersman, written for elementary and high school students.
Say, Could That Lad Be I? A 20th Century Journey, by Peter Schwed '32 (Bennett Books, $25) -- A memoir of the author's life. Schwed was formerly publisher and editorial chairman of Simon & Schuster.
The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem, by Mark Steiner *72 (Harvard, $39.95) -- Challenging dominant naturalistic views, Steiner argues that the success of mathematical physics appears to assign the human mind a special place in the cosmos. The author is a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Cities on the Rebound: A Vision for Urban America, by William H. Hudnut III '54 (Urban Land Institute, $21.95) -- The author proposes a variety of strategies for successful cities, including partnership, collaboration, diversity, and global vision. Hudnut is a former congressman and four-term mayor of Indianapolis.
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