Where does it hurt?
People suffer from pain and always have; it is our mortal condition. For millennia, pain was a “spiritual signifier” blamed on spirits, deities and demons, or on bad deeds committed in this life or a former one. As recently as the mid-19th century, when surgical anesthesia was introduced, it was thought by many to “prevent men from going through what God intended.” Pain, its causes, its remedies, its effects on body and soul, has always perplexed us—and now it’s impelled Melanie Thernstrom to write The Pain Chronicles, narrated in salutary style by Laural Merlington. Unfortunately for her, Thernstrom comes to the subject as someone who’s had to deal firsthand with chronic pain, and she weaves her own story and her “pain diary” into her elegantly presented, wide-ranging research, which includes history, religion, biology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and intriguing observations on pain from the Bhagavad Gita, Heidegger, Susan Sontag and more. In Thernstrom’s accomplished hands, the nature of chronic pain becomes compelling and engaging listening—and it doesn’t hurt a bit.
Howard Norman’s quiet but intensely affecting novel, What is Left the Daughter, is written as a long and long-overdue letter from a father to his 21-year-old daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a toddler. The reasons for Wyatt Hilyer’s decades of silence become clear as he pours out a story punctuated with suicide and murder, but shaped and misshaped by an enduring love. In 1941, when Wyatt was 17, his mother and father, discovering they were both in love with the same woman, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the same day. Orphaned, he moved in with his aunt and uncle and fell madly in love with their adopted daughter, Tilda, who in turn fell madly and resolutely in love with a German student. But the world was at war; fear, anger and dismay were rampant and perceptions off-kilter, sometimes with devastating results, even in small-town Canada. There’s never any self-pity in Wyatt’s voice as he recounts his life, but rather a stoic, world-worn acceptance of unexamined choices, loss and, perhaps now, a slow crawl to redemption. Bronson Pinchot’s finely muted narration captures every nuance of Norman’s atmospheric, subtly shaped tale.
AUDIO OF THE MONTH
Jonathan Franzen’s latest, Freedom, is a big, brilliantly evoked novel that looks at contemporary American life through the fortunes and misfortunes of the Berglund family. It’s too good, too well-crafted to be called a “sweeping saga,” but its scope captures the past decades and teases out the good, the bad and the ugly in marriage and commitment, our polarizing culture wars, our concern—or lack of it—for the environment, our attempts to be socially responsible and our very American obsession with “freedom.” Patty and Walter Berglund, young parents when the book opens, are middle-aged when it ends, the baggage they’ve brought with them—and picked up along the way—unpacked in fascinating detail. Freedom’s strongly articulated characters will draw you in, and David LeDoux’s intelligent performance maintains the right narrative pace throughout.