And since the 1980s, no illness has roused more emotion than AIDS. From Randy Shilts' groundbreaking nonfiction book "And the Band Played On" to Michael Cunningham's novel "At Home at the End of the World," the tragic stories involving AIDS have been told again and again.
Question: Can these stories ever be told enough?
You can find an answer in Seattle author Rebecca Brown's "The Gifts of the Body," the October reading selection for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Though a collection of stories, the combined power of each gives Brown's book the feel of a novel. First published in the fall of 1994, "The Gifts of the Body" uses the conceit of an unnamed narrator to lead us through the various tales of impending death.
The narrator is a home-care worker who works with a variety of AIDS patients. Her clients include everyone from young men to a 94-year-old woman – a range not only of age but also the means of contraction (the woman was passed tainted blood through a transfusion).
What remains consistent almost to the end is the narrator's ability to hold her emotions in check despite the sadness of all that surrounds her.
Consider this passage from "The Gift of Sweat," a story in which the narrator visits the apartment of a client named Rick only to find him curled up in a ball, having suffered a sudden attack of pain.
When she says she'll get him a blanket, Rick asks her not to leave him.
" 'OK,' I said. 'I'll stay here.'
" 'I'm so cold,' he said again.
"I touched his back. It was sweaty and hot.
"I got onto the futon. I slid on very carefully so I wouldn't jolt him. I lay on my side behind him. I could feel him shaking. I put my left arm around his middle. I slipped my right hand under his head and touched his forehead. It was wet and hot.
"I held my hand on his forehead a couple of seconds to cool it. Then I petted his forehead and up through his hair. His hair was wet, too. I combed my fingers through his wet hair to his ponytail. I said, 'Poor Rick. Poor Ricky.' "
But no one can go unaffected in the face of today's version of the Black Plague, which though no longer in the headlines nevertheless remains an affliction for which there is no cure.
And the question needs to be asked: Since United Nations statistics show that some 24.5 million HIV-infected men, women and children live in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, why isn't AIDS still in the headlines?
Brown doesn't attempt to answer that question. She merely records the experiences of those to whom her narrator ministers.
Charles Mudede, associate editor of Seattle's alternative newspaper The Stranger, quotes her as saying this of her writing: "My work often begins with my hearing a sound, a phrase, a sentence. Often I don't know what this sound phrase sentence means. It has to go over and over in my head and then slowly it squeezes more words out and I am, fitfully, writing."
It's a method that clearly works.
Calling "The Gift of the Body" a "beautifully controlled, immensely affecting novel" that is "written in casually vernacular language," Publishers Weekly said: "Deceptively simple, the narrative grows in power, establishing a strong bond of empathy in the reader and conveying the visceral impact of a shared emotional experience."
A critic for the literary-review journal Kirkus Reviews was a tad harsher:
"Brown … relates this slow, doleful tale of a home-care volunteer for people with AIDS in an unsentimental voice that treats illness and dying with a sort of reverence – but which also fails to generate much interest. … Guilt-inducing for those who expect good writing and find themselves yawning over people's deathbeds."
Let's let The New York Times Book Review break the tie: "An emotionally wrenching work of fiction about a health-care worker who tenders compassion and love to victims of AIDS, by an author who 'strips her language of convention to lay bare the ferocious rituals of love and need.' "
Better yet, let's leave the tie-breaking task to all of you.