HEROIC MEASURES by Jill Ciment

Book Quote:

“She and Alex have no one but each other–two specs of dust soon to be scattered to the universe.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Doug Bruns (AUG 17, 2009)

There are a handful of adjectives and phrases that I will not hesitate to use in describing this book: gem-like, precise, beautiful and charming, for starters. Stewart, my local bookseller, knowing my tastes in literature, gave me this book to read. That’s right my bookseller GAVE me this book. He felt so strongly as to its merits that he wanted me to read it, regardless of the question of commerce. That is extraordinary, and speaks to the seriousness with which my book-selling friend takes reading, good books and friendship. He is not alone in his opinion of Heroic Measures. The all-mighty Oprah has also endorsed the book. In fact, for a while, she gave it away too, inviting her legions to download it for free from her web page. Wow.

So, what is all the hoopla about? It is about, quite simply, two days in the lives of an elderly, long-married, couple and their dog living in Manhattan. As Ruth and Alex prepare to put their fifth-floor walk-up on the market, they wake to discover that Dorothy, their grey-faced dachshund, is paralyzed. Childless, Ruth and Alex, have made Dorothy the emotional core of their life–and she is also at the heart and center of the novel. Simultaneous to Dorthothy’s paralysis is the city’s self-same condition. A gas-tank truck has jack knifed in the Midtown Tunnel. It’s spine, like Dorothy’s, ruptured. The driver has fled the vehicle and is a suspected terrorist on the run in the Big Apple. The city is in a panic. Ruth and Alex are in a panic. Dorothy, who’s interior life we are invited to observe, remains plaintively, if painfully, calm.

The story’s perspective shifts. Sometimes we come at things from Ruth’s vantage point, sometimes Alex’s. The voice is always true. And if you have ever wondered what is going on between the floppy ears of our four-legged companions, you will delight as the Dorothy’s “voice” is revealed. Here she is arriving at the veterinary hospital, broken hearted at leaving Alex and Ruth.

“The nurse opens Dorothy’s cage and settles her inside, like a loaf of soft dough laid in an oven. Dorothy’s instinct is to stand up and bark, too, to become one with the pack, to howl her head off until every dog in the land is alerted to the danger, but her sadness prevails: she curls into a ball and holds her tongue.”

If you have ever taken a pet to the vet you will be relieved to know that she will be lovingly handled like a soft loaf of dough. Ciment, on her web page, writes, “What I found interesting about writing from a dog’s point of view was that until I invented a specific dog, a hypochondriac, gourmand, twelve-year-old dachshund named Dorothy, a soul as complex and emotional as any of my human characters, her sections read flat.” Ciment continues to relate that she had to allow herself to be surprised by Dorothy, as she did with her other characters. “Anyone who lives with a dog, as I do, comes to understand the uniqueness of their…spirit and nature.” Dorothy’s trials and tribulations, her exams and subsequent surgery, are rendered with compassion and heart-rendering affection. That is important because as she is sequestered and treated, the rest of the world, albeit the singular world of New York, and briefly Baltimore, has run amok.

The real estate market tracks the manic anxiety of a post 9/11 city, as the truck driver remains on the lamb. The media chimes in with around-the-clock anxiety-ridden reports and polls. The world-gone-awry zaniness is artfully rendered and would be humorous if not so tragically on the mark.

Among other things, this book is a meditation on successful longevity. Ruth and Alex have been married for forty-five years and their quiet life is rendered with grace and perception. Here is Alex as he finds Ruth asleep. “The reading lamp is shining. Her glasses rest askew on her nose. Her Portable Chekhov lies tented on her chest. He has loved her for so long that he can no longer distinguish between passion and familiarity.” I find it personally refreshing to discover a successful literary marriage. There are so few.

Ruth and Alex must sell their apartment. They can no longer endure the stairs. Simultaneously, they must find an apartment. Poor Dorothy is in the hospital. A visitor to their open-house is found lying on their bed to discern the view through the window. The apartment they desire is owned by a rude couple who will make their decision only via closed bid. This, and all the while the media drones on, while helicopters skirt about like giant insects, bombs are imaged with certitude, eye glasses pop a lens and every ring of the phone makes a pulse quicken. There are so many concerning interwoven factors at play that the reader, who has trustingly grasped the gentle author’s hand, never grows anxious, so reassuring is the voice of the story teller. That is something to accomplish, indeed.

Jill Ciment has been awarded a National Endowment for Arts, a NEA Japan Fellowship Prize, two New York State Fellowships for the Arts, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Florida where she teaches English at the University of Florida.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 32 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (June 30, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AMAZON PAGE: Heroic Measures
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jill Ciment
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other charming, gem-like books:

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

More “dog” stories:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wrobleski

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

Bibliography:

Nonfiction:

August 17, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Contemporary, End-of-Life, Family Matters, New York City, Reading Guide

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.