ABLOW, KEITH RUSSELL
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. KAPPLER: THE DOCTOR WHO BECAME A KILLER (1994)
True account of an anesthesiologist who continued practicing for decades despite considerable evidence that he was a murderer. Written by a doctor who was also the friend of one of Dr. Kappler’s victims.
THINGS FALL APART (1958)
Remarkable novel about a village in Africa, where the main character, Okonkwo, distinguishes himself ultimately by standing up to the intrusive British church-and-state combination that is making alarming inroads into the native culture by using persuasion and force. Okonkwo loses his life in the conflict, but the action in this novel makes a strong statement.
10 September 2001
A SLENDER THREAD (1997)
Author’s account of her experiences as a suicide-prevention hotline counselor--in upstate NY? A moving narrative even though it is clearly an amalgam of her hotline counselling experiences thrown together with Ackerman’s observations of squirrels, as well as other material done for various periodicals. Her gifted writing makes the amalgam work, however.
25 March 2002
THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS (2010)
The edition of this book that I read is said to be the 2012 revised paperback edition, and the reference notes were omitted. I trust that the notes refer to valid sources but sometimes the author's inflammatory tone made me a little dubious.
Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, and she clearly has an agenda. She makes a persuasive case for what is clearly an outgrowth of the long history of race prejudice--the gradual and little-noticed development of a "racial undercaste" in the United States in the last twenty or thirty years, as the war on drugs has moved forward at an alarming pace--and as many who have served time find themselves disenfranchised and unable to avail themselves of other advantages of US citizenship upon their release from prison. Alexander sees these developments as a concerted campaign to insure that large numbers of African-American men stay at the very bottom of the economic ladder.
One source she often draws upon, however, is the controversial Lerone Bennett, long-time editor of Ebony magazine, whose books have met with a mixed critical reception over the years. For instance, Eric Foner writing in the American Historian, expresses reservations in his review of his most recent book (on Lincoln).
And Alexander cites some very astonishing facts comparing the number of incarcerations in the 2000s to those in the 1970s, as well as numerous facts about prison construction, numbers of felony convictions, and many others.
She insists that crimes that are tolerated "on one side of town" aren't tolerated in another part of town--white people have been able to traffic in illegal drugs for recreation with impunity while African-Americans are searched without due cause and arrested for possession on very slight or nonexistent evidence.
She points out that prisons are now a very big business, with a lot to lose from any diminution in the number of incarcerations.
One of her most alarming observations concerns the increasing militarization of the police--something any occasional watcher of the TV program Cops will have noted. The military has been making weapons freely available to the police for quite some time.
This is a hard-hitting book, and, fortunately for the extremely important cause the author is backing, she doesn't adopt a shrill or strident tone though she is clearly outraged.
Outrage is in order.
Alexander is in favor of reparations for those who have been harmed by the war on drugs, according to her statements quoted in a
--As a postscript here, it is well known that African-Americans have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. The war on drugs is the area where wrongful convictions have been particularly widespread lately. But then there was a former student of mine, Delbert Tibbs, who was wrongfully convicted (in Florida) of rape and murder and who served 3 years in prison, two of them on death row, before being freed:
--There's nothing at all new about the injustice African-Americans have suffered in this country.
Michelle Alexander's book, calling attention to the most recent manifestation of that injustice, should be read and discussed. Apparently it has attracted considerable attention. Good.
HAPPY DAYS: MY MOTHER, MY FATHER, MY SISTER AND ME (1995)
This book is a memoir and a tribute to the author's parents and sister. Her father was Milton Ager, a composer who wrote such songs as "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Ain't She Sweet"--and who was a good friend of the Gershwins and other well-known composers of the era. Her mother, Cecelia Ager, was a columnist for Variety.
The narrative gives a fascinating glimpse into the show business world and a family for whom money wasn't much of a problem, who ate their meals in restaurants, and who were always, more or less, among the rich and famous.
This isn't just a collection of dropped names. It is also a fond recollection of people who were important to the author.
THE SUM OF OUR DAYS: A MEMOIR (2009)
The celebrated South American author, who became a US citizen, has written a stirring memoir of her life, especially the later part. She addresses the work to her dead daughter Paula, who died of complications of porphyria in her 20s.
Isabel Allende has lived in Chile, Venezuela, and California, been married and divorced, and has been married for many years to an American lawyer, Willie, who has several children by two previous marriages. The complex family relationships are difficult to sort out but Allende guides us through the maze skilfully, including a couple of lesbian relationships in her family that involve children.
Allende is nothing if not assertive at times. According to her account, she parked on Willie's doorstep with her suitcase, and they were married eight months later.
By then, of course, she was in her 40s and was Isabel Allende, a well-established writer.
She seems never to have wanted to closet herself away from her family's problems in order to write. This account reads as if she has been very involved in her family's many ups and downs (the addiction of several of Willy's children, for example) every step of the way, taking people in as needed and trying to make suitable arrangements for them.
She makes it clear that she has never forgotten her South American roots even though she had to flee from Chile at the time of the Pinochet dictatorship. (She is the first cousin once removed of Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973.)
She doesn't spend much time on politics in this account. She is open to mystical ideas about other-worldly interventions in our everyday lives and believes in astrology.
I would like to read more work by Isabel Allende.
11 July 2014
THE WAR AGAINST CLICHÉ: ESSAYS AND REVIEWS, 1971-2000 (2001)
This substantial book is a collection of the author's essays and book reviews, with attention given to Cervantes, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and many other writers.
His comments are entertaining and lively. Amis is nothing if not opinionated, though sometimes his opinions are open to question. Without having read The Adventures of Augie March and with only the quoted segments Amis provides to go on, I wouldn't agree that Augie March is "the great American novel," for instance. But then Saul Bellow's style isn't for everyone.
Still, Amis persuaded me that I should try once again to read Lolita.
12 July 2012
Semi-autobiography by one of the sons of the writer Kingsley Amis. There are interesting recollections of his father, as well as of Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, and other good friends.
Amis gives a moving account of the tragedy of Martin’s cousin Lucy Partington, who was brutally murdered at 21 but whose fate was unknown for 20 years.
In spite of its grimmer aspects, this is often an amusing book.
7 January 2002
"HEAVY WATER" AND OTHER STORIES (1998)
Maybe I'm not a Martin Amis fan. I found these stories difficult to read. The author tries too hard to be witty and trendy--though he often succeeds.
"The Janitor on Mars" is set in the future. The janitor on Mars proceeds to tell the people on earth how very insignificant we are--and how very doomed.
"Straight Fiction" sets up a world where being straight is considered as unusual as being homosexual once was. Amis runs this idea much too far into the ground, I think.
ANGELL, MARCIA, MD
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DRUG COMPANIES: HOW THEY DECEIVE US, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT (2004)
The author was the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, following the editorship of Arnold Relman, MD, who happens to be Marcia Angell's lifetime partner and a frequent collaborator in other publications.
There isn't a word about multiple sclerosis in this book but there is considerable discussion of Neurontin, which is often used for MS spasticity.The author comments that Neurontin usage has been expanded for many off-label situations where it isn't effective.
This book argues that the pharmaceutical industry in the US has entirely too much money and power--and that it is involved in many questionable practices that are enhancing its money and power at a rapid rate, such as its heavy involvement in continuing medical education (CME) programs for doctors, in sponsoring medical conferences, and in providing free samples and other gifts to doctors routinely.
She points out that 32 percent of the sales revenue for the drug industry goes to "marketing and administration," while a much smaller percentage goes to research and development--and yet we US consumers are often told that the drug industry "must" be highly profitable because how else can the US be on the cutting edge in medical research?
She demonstrates that the US is not a leader in medical research by mentioning that most truly innovative drugs in recent years have come from research outside the US. As for the efforts of the US drug industry, its major output nowadays is so-called "me-too" drugs, which are slightly modified copies of existing drugs that can be marketed as new drugs, thus enabling the industry to continue making a profit on a drug that has reached the end of its patent protection period.
The research that is done in connection with drug development is often flawed, Dr. Angell notes. For instance, for FDA approval a new drug needs only to be compared with placebo. The author makes a strong case for requiring that a new drug be compared with existing drugs (as well as with placebo).
She also would like to see more Phase IV studies done.
This book is full of good ideas and facts. Anybody concerned with the high cost of drugs in the US would be interested in it.
5 June 2009
MOM AND ME AND MOM (2013)
Maya Angelou continues her autobiographical account here, focusing on the latter part of her childhood, spent primarily with her real mother in San Francisco after several years in Stamps, Arkansas, with her grandmother (the other "mom" of the title).
Vivian Baxter, Maya's real mom, comes across as a very strong personality, cast in the mold of the traditional matriarch. Her financial ventures are somewhat vague, but she apparently doesn't hurt for money, and she likes to settle scores by packing heat.
I found the incidents where Vivian wins her point by using her gun chilling but then the world we in the US live in is chilling because of the easy availability of firearms. I disliked finding that a writer as deservedly celebrated as Maya Angelou relates these incidents almost admiringly--but how can anyone take her to task for being a part of the world she found herself in?
She has evidently set out to write a work in praise of her mother, and she has done that. She could hardly have turned the book into a polemic in favor of gun control. The book is a picture of the people who were important in her life at that early age, and as such it is very revealing, troubling, and wonderful.
3 October 2014
GATHER TOGETHER IN MY NAME (1974)
This second part of Maya Angelou's autobiography is eminently worth reading. (The first part, dealing with her childhood, is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and is also very absorbing.)
Now Maya (Marguerite, known as "Rita" often in this book) is in her late teens and on her own with a baby and no husband. She is in California, drifting from jobs as a waitress and a dancer to being a madam (on a small scale) to turning tricks herself. All the while she is trying desperately to hold onto her infant son, who has to be cared for by other people much of the time.
She is worldly wise in many ways but in other ways astonishingly naive and vulnerable, as in her readiness to believe a pimp's sorry line.
Maya Angelou has a rare ability to laugh at herself, to see herself from a perspective that usually only other people would have.
This is a true story that needed to be told--and needs to be read.
16 October 2005
ROOMMATES: MY GRANDFATHER'S STORY (1994)
True account of the author’s Jewish immigrant grandfather who, when over 100 years old, helped to save the author’s disintegrating family life.
Max Apple teaches English at the college level in Houston, went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the 1960s, married and had two children, but his wife became severely disabled by multiple sclerosis and went to live with her own parents, where she soon died. The grandfather’s gentle but ironic humor often saves the day with the family.
This excellent book was made into a movie, "Roommates."
27 August 1999
Political correctness might dictate that the title of this book should have been The Person behind the Book, particularly since some of the authors discussed are women, but that is just a passing comment...
Auchincloss presents brief essays on several authors in an attempt to demonstrate a link between an author's life and his work. I'm not sure that his essays do demonstrate such a link, but I feel that the link is always there.
He has far more respect for T. S. Eliot than Eliot deserves, in my opinion, and so my opinions of Auchincloss are probably prejudiced. But his discussion of Sarah Orne Jewett (whose Country of the Pointed Firs is a remarkable but neglected work) is enlightening, and so are his remarks on Harold Frederick (The Damnation of Theron Ware).
I've read only one novel by Louis Auchincloss and am not an Auchincloss enthusiast, but his literary comments in this book are usually sensible and well worth reading.
22 December 2007
MANSFIELD PARK (1814)
Fanny Price is the daughter of the least successful of a trio of sisters and at the age of ten is sent to live with one of her mother's sisters, her aunt, Lady Bertram, with the other sister (Mrs. Norris) hovering close at hand.
We don't see much of Fanny's background until late in the novel but we are given to understand that it is deplorably poor, with at least nine children in the Price household and Mr. Price disabled. On the other hand, the two aunts have done quite well.
Fanny is thrown together with the four Bertram children and their governess, but her situation remains ambiguous throughout her childhood, with her cousins mocking her for deficiencies she couldn't have helped. She is passive and humble when confronted by so many assaults on her self-respect--assaults that are described without emotional content. They are reported to us, as are her reactions. We are not induced to pity Fanny. Instead we have to wonder at and admire her self-control.
Of the four cousins, Edmund is the only one who seems to understand her and defend her though he launches his words of support tentatively and rarely. It is clear that in this setting both he and Fanny would feel outnumbered by the other three cousins, backed up by the horrific Mrs. Norris and on occasion Lady Bertram.
How keenly the characters watch the money in their lives and in the lives of their neighbors is made clear by their passing remarks about someone's income or property--and especially by their discussions of appropriate marriages. Clearly this is a time when a marriage is more of a business contract than a love match--but Fanny's situation and the way it is resolved amount to a statement in favor of abandoning the notion of a wife as a piece of property.
There are the Crawfords, who become important as the children reach adulthood--the brother and sister, Henry and Mary. Henry decides to pursue Fanny, somewhat surprisingly, but since he has a history of dalliances, it's entirely possible that his intentions with respect to her wouldn't have been honorable. Meanwhile, his sister Mary flirts quite openly with Edmund, who is about to become a vicar and is still Fanny's friend and defender. Gradually we learn, by subtle indirect hints, that Fanny doesn't dare hope for Edmund as a suitor but if she did dare hope, Edmund is the person she would prefer.
Others must not know about this preference, the reader assumes. By now we know that Fanny's situation is too lowly for her to presume to aspire to marry anyone so prosperous as a Bertram, even though as a vicar Edmund wouldn't have been very rich.
She can and does insist, repeatedly, that she wants nothing to do with Henry Crawford, however. By now we have learned about Henry and Edmund and the others through a play that the young people want to perform in the absence of the master of the house (Sir Thomas Bertram, who is in Antiqua on an extended stay).
During the rehearsal for the play, the question comes up: Just how would this performance go over if Sir Thomas were present, considering that they are appropriating his space and putting on a play that has some questionable qualities?
The issue isn't the moral tone of the play, for it is pointed out that the performers can always strike out the offensive passages, but whether it is appropriate for them to take over Sir Thomas's premises to such an extent. Here Edmund and Fanny are opposed to going forward with the play, and both take almost rigidly sanctimonious stands--perhaps illustrating their appropriateness for each other (the prospective vicar and his possible wife), although Edmund does eventually cave in and agree to take part in it.
Fanny's obstinacy in refusing Henry Crawford's proposal shocks her relatives, and she is dispatched back to her parents' home for a long stay. It seems unthinkable that someone in Fanny's impoverished circumstances would reject a proposal of marriage from a man of means.
At this point we learn more about the actual Price household --right down to the noises and smells. Soon Fanny is longing for the Bertrams' quieter surroundings, even thinking of Mansfield Park as her home, conveniently forgetting the cruelty she has endured there. When it turns out that there is at least one sister who is enough like Fanny herself to become her friend and even to accompany her back to Mansfield Park, we probably sense that all is going to turn out well.
And it does, as we probably hoped it would. Fanny would seem to have suffered enough. There has been a scandal but Edmund and Fanny haven't been involved. They will get their well-deserved happy ending--and we can assume that they will try to help Fanny's parents and brothers and sisters in any way they can. We're not told this, nor is it ever suggested, but we have been led to see the gross unfairness of a world where poverty is treated as if it's a disgrace.
Jane Austen has sometimes been regarded as a delineator of manners in the upper echelons of English society but Mansfield Park shows that she is far more than a chronicler of polite ladies and gentlemen. Fanny's brother William and her father have made sailing their way of life, and the author takes us briefly into their world. With these glimpses, as well as the fact that Sir Thomas Bertram is away in Antigua on business for so long, we are made aware of just how small and narrow the world of the landed gentry can be.
And throughout there is the pointed wit in the characters' barbed remarks to one another, especially the jabs at Fanny's situation, attacks that show the heartlessness that is tolerated in this so elegant world.
17 January 2018