Books

Readorama: Author George Hodgman’s poignant journey to ‘Bettyville’

“Bettyville” author George Hodgman will speak Wednesday, May 20, at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.
“Bettyville” author George Hodgman will speak Wednesday, May 20, at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.

Welcome to “Bettyville,” population two: author George Hodgman and his mother, Betty.

The memoir describes that specific place currently occupied by Betty and Hodgman, a New York City book editor who returned to his family’s northeast Missouri home.

She has been battling dementia and, since March 2014, lymphoma.

Since losing his job in New York in 2011, Hodgman has been caring for his mother at their home in Paris, Mo. He is an only child, and his father died in 1997.

His mother, he discovers, sometimes turned on the coffee maker in the middle of the night. Or she would try to put a sock on over her shoe. At night, she would grow increasingly frightened, a common syndrome among dementia patients.

This behavior is noted without mercy in the book, reviewed in The Star in March. What is crucial is that Hodgman turns the same relentless gaze upon himself and just what the future holds for both of them. Hodgman describes going outside at night to watch the stars.

“They calm me after seeing Betty under siege,” he writes. “I turn on the coach light by the driveway; I leave it burning all night every night.

“We are expecting no guests but it says that we are still alive, not yet ready to disappear into the dark.”

Hodgman recently explained how he resolved to stay in Paris after witnessing the quality of the fight Betty was putting up against advancing darkness.

“My mother has made such a valiant struggle, even as it has been more and more draining for her,” Hodgman says.

His decision to stay, he added, reflected “my admiration for her struggle.”

He began writing what became “Bettyville” on a card table in the family living room.

The book tells not just of their current circumstances but of the family’s entire history. That included no frank discussion of Hodgman’s sexual orientation. Hodgman describes an epic moment in the late 1960s after his father, apparently upon his mother’s insistence, had bought him a fishing pole and brought him to a nearby pond.

Hodgman writes how, after a decent interlude, he threw the rod into the pond and told his father he wanted to go see Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”

His father took him.

Just what such written anecdotes would amount to, Hodgman wasn’t sure.

“The industry now is interested in publishing big commercial books,” said Hodgman, a 1981 graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school. “This was going to be a small, quirky book.”

At the same time, he knew what he didn’t want to write. “There are memoirs that have a kind of saintly, Hallmark-y tone,” he said.

Any book of his, he added, would have to avoid that quality and not just detail a loved one’s slow decline.

Accordingly, the finished book is often funny.

“I kept hearing, after coming home, how funny my mother and I were together,” he said.

In that regard, Betty is as advertised.

“Don’t put me in a place with a lot of old people,” Betty told Hodgman two years ago, when she was 90.

“Life to me is a blend of funny and sad,” Hodgman said.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Hodgman will speak with Sandra Moran, Kansas City area novelist, at the Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. The appearance is being co-presented by the LikeMe Lighthouse, a Kansas City LGBT community center.

For more info, go to RainyDayBooks.com.

How Ike was like Ike

Today Dwight Eisenhower often is remembered for his 100-watt grin and his often-rambling press conference responses that prompted White House correspondents to once compose an Eisenhower version of the Gettysburg Address.

“I haven’t checked these figures,” Eisenhower would have said, “but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country…”

But author Evan Thomas, in his recent book “Ike’s Bluff,” details how Eisenhower sometimes played the distracted chief executive to divert everyone from his real agenda: keeping the country out of a ruinous, even nuclear, war.

“He would play dumb when it suited his purposes,” Thomas said recently.

Once, when an admiral prompted a minor public panic after predicting an imminent war with China, State Department officials begged Eisenhower not to address the delicate issue at a news conference.

“Don’t worry,” Eisenhower told his press secretary, “I’ll just confuse them.”

Through this often maddening method, Eisenhower maintained an approval rating routinely north of 60 percent, and his White House years are remembered, at least in part, for peace and prosperity.

“He had the confidence to be humble,” Thomas said.

“He was never trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Of course, he had been the Supreme Allied Commander who had conquered Europe, so he could get away with that.”

Eisenhower still paid a high personal price for his small deceptions.

“He kept that genial bland demeanor, but he also had a huge temper, as his family certainly knew, and the internal cost was great,” Thomas said.

“His stomach was a mess, and he had strokes and heart attacks.”

Thomas speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. The presentation is the first installment in a new series, Eisenhower 125, observing the 34th president’s 1890 birth. Thomas’ appearance is co-presented by the Eisenhower Library and the W.T. Kemper Foundation. For more info, go to KCLibrary.org

o reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com..

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