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The book reviews are arranged alphabetically by authors' last names. If you're looking for an author whose last name starts with a letter of the alphabet not shown on the first screen, you'll need to click on "OLDER POSTS." "OLDER POSTS" is a mislabeling, but there seems to be no way to change it. I've tried.































A


ABLOW, KEITH RUSSELL


THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. KAPPLER:... (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.


(June 2000)
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ACHEBE, CHINUA

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)

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ACKERMAN, DIANE

A SLENDER THREAD
(1997)


Author’s account of her experiences as a suicide-prevention hotline counsellor--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, in my opinion.


(25 March 2002)
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ALEXANDER, MICHELLE
    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 very persuasive case for 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 side 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 seems to be in order. 

Alexander is now 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.

March 10, 2014



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ALEXANDER, SHANA
      
      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--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.

(7 January 2011)
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AMIS, MARTIN

    THE WAR AGAINST CLICHÉ:  ESSAYS & 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

   EXPERIENCE (2000)

Semi-autobiography by one of the sons of the writer Kingsley Amis. Interesting recollections of his father, as well as of Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, and other good friends. 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 thought.

(11 March 2011)

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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 finds 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)
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ANGELOU, MAYA
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)

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APPLE, MAX

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 book was made into a movie, "Roommates." Excellent book.


(27 August 1999)

AUCHINCLOSS, LOUIS
THE MAN BEHIND THE BOOK: LITERARY PROFILES (1996)

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)
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B

BAKER, NICHOLSON
  
      DOUBLE FOLD: LIBRARIES AND THE ASSAULT ON PAPER (2001)

The author is very perturbed about the way in which libraries are rushing to put so many books and newspapers on microfilm and, in the process, destroying the original works. The libraries insist that they are doing this of necessity because microfilming a volume entails "disbinding" it and thus rendering it useless, for all practical purposes. Also, there is the process of "embrittlement," by which every book eventually becomes brittle and crumbles, or so the theory goes.

Baker points out that a microfilmed version is NOT an exact copy of the original, that the reader needs special equipment to read it, and that it is almost always much less readable than the original. He also disputes the notion, often stated in the library world in recent years, that books will "crumble" and turn to dust. He sets out to prove that the kinds of paper most books are printed on will never crumble or turn to dust. He stops just short of accusing librarians and archivists of conspiring to rid the world of books in their zeal to save space (and therefore money).

This is an absorbing and provocative book, written with wit and verve.

By the way, the author has bought up the runs of several US newspapers with his own funds and seems to have rescued them from the discard pile, for a while at least....

(14 November 2008)
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BALISH, CHRIS

     HOW TO LIVE WELL WITHOUT OWNING A CAR: SAVE MONEY, BREATHE EASIER, & GET MORE MILEAGE OUT OF LIFE (2006)

The author is a journalist who is responsible for the HOW TO LIVE WELL series of books. I haven't read any other books in the series.

As I'm writing this, the local TV news is featuring a story about a deadly car crash in the vicinity. The accident-proneness of vehicles isn't a major point made in this book but it very well might have been.

The author makes a very persuasive case for living without owning a car. He acknowledges that a rented car can come in handy on occasion for some people, but he cites relevant statistics to show that the typical car-owner is spending entirely too much money and having entirely too many hassles in his life as a result of the "convenience" of owning a car.
He discusses the options: carpools, shared rides, public transit, bicycles, and walking. He gives exact references for additional information.

I was nearly one hundred percent in agreement with the points in this book. I don't share the author's enthusiasm for motorcycles as an alternative to cars, however. The noise they're responsible for is unacceptable, but that's just one person's opinion.

I've never owned a car and never driven one much either--so Chris Balish is preaching to the converted here.

(15 March 2010)
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BANKS, RUSSELL

AFFLICTION (1989)


This novel--said to be partly autobiographical--is the story of the downfall of one Wade Whitehouse, the narrator's brother, who works as a well-driller and the chief of police in a very small New Hampshire town.

Ironically, as Wade goes downhill in an alcoholic plunge into memory blackouts, paranoia, and typical impulsive displays of temper and volatility, one of his suspicions that is actually right on target is ignored by the community as they recoil from evidence of his deterioration: he has rightly surmised that a man's death during a hunting trip was no hunting accident but murder. So far as we know, the murder never comes to light.

In addition to being an absorbing (but grisly) story, this novel is a cri de coeur against the kind of bullying machismo that prevails in so many American male social relationships. The author focuses on hunting traditions, and his picture of hunting season in New Hampshire is horrifying.


(3 July 2007)

THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF: THE STORIES OF RUSSELL BANKS (2000)

This is a fine collection of stories, with many previously published stories now revised. They are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.

They are stories of working people in New Hampshire, chiefly, and in fact some of them are so brief that they seem as if they might have been fragments of a novel that never got written. Many of the stories involve the town of Catamount, New Hampshire, and a particular trailer park with a focus on specific characters--a man who lives on the ice every winter so he can fish through the ice, for instance.


There are often alcoholic husbands and fathers bumbling through their sad lives. There are divorces aplenty in these stories. One of the longest stories (and one of the best, in my opinion) is "The Guinea-Pig Lady," about the trailer park.

The last story in the volume, "Lobster Night," is grim indeed, but then Banks is not an upbeat writer.

A few of the stories have the quality of parables, and these became annoying for that reason. Sometimes Banks is too much like a sociologist. But on balance this collection was absorbing reading, true to life and sober and clear-headed.


(17 September 2007)

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BARNES,DJUNA

NIGHTWOOD (1937)



Rather frankly racist and anti-Jewish novel, with two prefaces by T. S. Eliot, praising it to the skies. The plot doesn't hang together well, and the characters are devoid of motivation. Occasional patches of "poetic" writing, but still a shockingly overrated work.

(12 February 1999)
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BARROWCLIFFE, MARK
     THE ELFISH GENE: DUNGEONS, DRAGONS & GROWING UP STRANGE (2007)

The author, born in 1964 in the UK, tells of his addiction to the role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons amusingly and self-critically.

So very amusingly, in fact, that the reader may not always be certain when he is giving out the truth or speaking hyperbolically. For instance, did his mum really serve up scones for his 20-plus teenaged boy guests while they played D & D? In his account the request for scones was made, and she dutifully and cheerfully obliged.

Barrowcliffe analyzes the phenomenon of D & D addiction very insightfully, I think. He sees it as an instance of young males congregating, to the exclusion of most females, and therefore free to be as rotten to one another as their instincts led them to be.

--Which, it seems, was plenty rotten.  Here again I had a problem finding out just how rotten, though, because of the way he tells of an incident in a role-playing game (RPG) where he "puts a child's eye out."  It's not clear whether he actually put the child's eye out, or whether the accident was part of the game. If it happened in real life, then Barrowcliffe comes across as being frighteningly heartless.

People who read this book would be well advised to have some prior familiarity with the game and with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. But even without that familiarity, I was able to get a detailed glimpse into the world of the D & D players.

23 July 2012

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BAUSCH, RICHARD

     REBEL POWERS (1993)

This started out to be an interesting story about a Vietnam Air Force vet with a wife and two children who has to go to prison in Wyoming for stealing a typewriter. The first-person narrator for most of the story is seventeen-year-old Thomas, the older child, though when he wasn't present at a scene, he imagines what might have happened.
Lisa, the other child, is seven or eight years old but often makes comments that no child that age would make (in my opinion). Thomas himself often sounds like a much younger person in the dialogue, especially with his younger sister.

"Mother" (their mother) feels that they must move to the small town in Wyoming to be closer to their father during his two-year sentence, and much of the story concerns their train trip on the way west and some people they meet en route, notably one Penny Holt, who appears to be quite rootless and very much in need of a family to belong to. She attaches herself readily to "Mother," and Thomas eventually develops a crush on her though she's considerably older than he is.

They establish themselves in a boarding house in Wyoming where they have very little privacy--and where none other than Penny Holt turns up in search of them. She settles right in to their family, clinging to "Mother" as to a very close friend.

Penny had been going to Kansas to see her boy friend who was imprisoned for draft evasion (it is the late 1960s). That hasn't worked out, and so Penny is again at loose ends.

Before "Father" gets released from prison--long before the two years have elapsed--there is curiosity in the boarding house about why he is there, and a story gets started that he is doing time for protesting the Vietnam war. It is a lie that I kept expecting to become the center of interest in the story (what would happen when the truth came out?) because there is much heated discussion among the characters about what constitutes a "loyal" American and whether the Vietnam war is justified. However, the issue simply dwindles away, and the story rambles on without any further exploration of the question. In effect, the rest of the action goes forward as if the lie about "Father" were true.

If having lived a lie has anything to do with his tragic end, this isn't made clear at all. We aren't even sure whether he has ever found out about the falsehood.

"Father," upon release, is so shattered by his experiences (Vietnam, the US prison), apparently, that he's reduced to a very confused state--and has a drinking problem.

In the last part of the book, the author seems almost too eager to tie up the loose ends and wrap up the story. He seems to have ceased to care much about his characters by this time--after having piqued our interest in them.

On the whole, this is a sadly jumbled book.

(6 August 2009)
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BAXTER, CHARLES

BELIEVERS: A NOVEL AND STORIES (1997?)


Among the stories here, I thought "Believers" was good. Some other stories dabble in "magical realism," alas.


(4 September 1998)
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BAYLEY, JOHN

IRIS AND HER FRIENDS



The author, a novelist, discusses his relationship with his failing wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch--a disciple of the German writer Elias Canetti--as she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. A very touching portrait of a devoted husband trying desperately to do what he can in the face of his wife’s increasingly incomprehensible behavior (she is ultimately consigned to a "home," where she dies).

(15 May 2003)
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BEATTIE, ANN

     THE NEW YORKER STORIES (2010)


A collection of 48 stories that appeared in The New Yorker between 1974 and 2006.  Because many of the stories have the "New Yorker ending"--that is, no ending at all--they have a sameness that falls just short of getting monotonous when they are gathered together in a volume. 

Many are slight, merely setting up a situation, then going nowhere. They are more like vignettes.

Beattie's characters tend to live in New York City or Virginia, drive cars, have partners who are leaving or have left, have difficult mothers, change careers, enjoy fine wines, have caterers, and get stoned.  Even though many of them are creatures of privilege, the author makes them understandable and real.  And often a story has dark overtones: a car crash, a dead child, AIDS.  

"The Confidence Decoy" is an interesting sketch showing the interaction between a more educated person (a lawyer) and  less educated ones (two movers the lawyer is temporarily involved with). The story is unified by the story of the confidence decoy, but we are constantly aware of the way in which the lawyer thinks he is communicating with the movers even though we suspect he isn't getting through to them, and the way in which what the movers say is constantly being misconstrued by the lawyer. 

18 September 2013

     THE DOCTOR'S HOUSE (2002)

This novel about a dysfunctional family involves a doctor who despises his wife and children. Eager to maintain his status as The Doctor, but womanizing almost to the point of obsession, he inflicts cruelty (mostly verbal but fiendishly brutal) on the members of his family.

The story starts out being told by Nina, one of the doctor's two children. She seems a bit too preoccupied with her brother's philanderings, about which we hear a great deal. Andrew, the brother, has been bedding down women he knew in high school at a rapid rate.

Other narrators, Andrew among them,  give us the rest of the story. Gradually we learn about the doctor's wife's alcoholism and other horrors of this family, who are sad--and probably only too true to life.

(8 November 2008)

     PARK CITY: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES (1998)

Interesting stories about contemporary people, though some of the endings dangle maddeningly. Some stories were published before in SECRETS AND SURPRISES and WHAT WAS MINE and elsewhere.

(31 December 2001)
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BEERS, DAVID

BLUE SKY DREAM: A MEMOIR OF AMERICA'S FALL FROM GRACE (1996)


Interesting personal account of the author's experience growing up in the 1950s as a child of a Lockheed engineer in the aerospace industry enclave in California. Well-written and thoughtful, with reflections on the effects the decline in military spending has on the employees in that industry. This writer gives vivid and detailed pictures of important aspects of his childhood: Catholicism on his mother’s side; his father’s lapses into abusive behavior; the sameness of the suburb they lived in.


(17 July 1999)
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BELKIN, LISA

     SHOW ME A HERO: A TALE OF MURDER, SUICIDE, RACE,  AND REDEMPTION  (1999)

Lisa Belkin, who writes for the New York Times, was living in the general vicinity of Yonkers, NY, in 1992 and took an interest in an announcement of a lottery being held there for townhouse apartments in a new subsidized-housing development.

The construction of these 200 units, which would go to low-income residents (and everyone in Yonkers understood that the residents would be African-American or Hispanic), was possible only after a protracted four-year battle involving a judge, the mayor, and the people of Yonkers.

It seems a classic case of "NIMBY." In an effort to end a clear pattern of segregation, the housing was to be built in a middle-class, "white" area of Yonkers, much to the dismay of those who preferred the status quo.

Belkin focuses her attention on several persons involved in the conflict at the grass-roots level as well as on the very young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, and his wife.  Several women whom the author writes about were applicants and eventual residents of the new housing.

The book is similar to There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, and the author expresses her indebtedness to that book. 

People whose lives are too chaotic for them to be able to articulate their thoughts ought to have others speaking up in their behalf. Lisa Belkin--and Alex Kotlowitz and a few others--are trying to do just that.

It's about time.

(15 January 2011)
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BESTON, HENRY

      THE OUTERMOST HOUSE: A YEAR OF LIFE ON THE GREAT BEACH OF   CAPE COD (1928)

Henry Beston deserves to be better known if this book is typical of his writing. A beautifully constructed and lyrically written paean to nature, it tells of his year spent in a cabin on Cape Cod. He was not trying to emulate Thoreau. He freely acknowledges that his cabin was moderately comfortable. He was trying to get a sense of the natural world as it developed throughout a year on Cape Cod.

He doesn't preach at us. In fact, I don't recall that he used the word "spiritual" once in this book. He doesn't philosophize. He observes and reports on what he sees--whether it's the no-see-ums or the piping plover.

I see that he has been compared to Annie Dillard, but Annie Dillard's writing can't begin to approach Henry Beston's, but then I've never been an Annie Dillard fan....

(23 November 2007)
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BINCHY, MAEVE


     EVENING CLASS (1996)

Interesting novel involving an Italian language class.

(26 December 1998)

     LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE

Good novel tracing the lives of two women, one Irish and one English, from the World War II years of their childhood through their subsequent romances, marriages, and widowhood.

(23 November 1998)

     NIGHTS OF RAIN AND STARS (2004)

Sometimes I get cynical about Maeve Binchy and wonder if she has an eye on the movies in some of her novels. This is one of them. Set in Greece, which is always good for scenic shots (clear blue skies, the Mediterranean, ruins--who could ask for more?), its characters include a few Greeks who are almost too sage and perfect to be believable, especially the aging Andreas.

Several tourists--from England, Ireland, the United States, and Germany--are brought together in this part of Greece when a tragic boat fire kills 24 people, many of whom are known to the townspeople. All of the visitors are fairly young, and it turns out that all of them are running away from situations they found intolerable.

Soon their old lives are catching up with them, and decisions have to be made. It is astonishing how appropriately everybody behaves in this novel. It is as if they are marionettes whose strings are controlled by a crew of social workers. For things get wrapped up by the end of the novel, new pairings-off are transpiring, and a couple of long-gone sons are returning to the fold.

This novel has one very strong message: Families ought to stay close to one another. Families ought not to allow their closest relatives to stray far afield, no matter how great the lure of other parts of the world.
A very conventional message, to be sure, but Binchy presents the story in a tolerable way that is also enjoyable, even right down to the scenes with dancing Greeks that put one in mind of "Zorba the Greek" and other movies showcasing the Greek way of life.

(2 April 2008)

     THE RETURN JOURNEY (1998)

This is a collection of Binchy short stories. I had never read any of her shorter works, and I have to say I prefer her novels.

These are interesting, quiet stories about families and relationships. But they are a bit thin and slight. I wish she had fleshed them out more.

(18 November 2007)


TARA ROAD

A fairly good novel about two troubled women who swap houses for a summer. One woman is an American who has recently lost her teenaged son, the other is Irish, and her husband has left her and the two children because he is involved with a much younger woman who is pregnant.

(28 February 2000)
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BLOOM, CLAIRE

    LEAVING A DOLL'S HOUSE: A MEMOIR
(1996)


Interesting recollections by British actress Claire Bloom, who knew a number of famous men, including Charles Chaplin and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Much of the memoir concerns her husband of many years, the writer Philip Roth, and her objections to him are understandable and probably well-founded.


(10 April 2004)
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BLUM, DEBORAH

   GHOST HUNTERS: WILLIAM JAMES AND THE SEARCH FOR SCIENTIFIC PROOF OF LIFE AFTER DEATH (2006)

Deborah Blum has undertaken a formidable task here but she has succeeded admirably. A problem confronting her must have been how to present William James in a favorable light without disparaging his long-lasting interest in psychical research and still treat the subject of psychic phenomena respectfully though not necessarily credulously.
William James, along with numerous other notable figures in philosophy, psychology, and even the "hard sciences," was interested in finding out how much truth lay in the claims of psychics, especially mediums and clairvoyants.

To that end, the American and British Societies for Psychical Research were founded, and many learned articles on the subject appeared in print. Some academics were dismayed that William James would have lent his name and time and energy to an enterprise that many regarded as crackpot and fraudulent.

This book will do nothing to settle the question of the legitimacy of psychic experiences, but that is not its aim. The jury is still out on the matter, anyway--even after the passage of a century. What it does do is explore the extent of James's involvement in the struggle for respectability that psychical research faced in the early 20th century.
To understand James's position on psychical research, one has to understand his insistence on remaining open to any and all ideas, no matter how wild they might seem--and Deborah Blum clearly does understand this. She does not waste time castigating the members of the scientific community who had only contempt for psychical research. She presents their views as simply another perspective on the matter.
She reveals some facts that may not have come to light up to now--among them, the lengths to which the investigators would go in their efforts to prevent their chosen mediums from cheating. They sometimes tied the medium up or subjected the medium to noxious stimuli in an effort to find out if her trance state was real. Perhaps surprisingly, the mediums hardly ever objected to all of the hoops they were made to jump through.

Another aspect of the studies comes out in Blum's description of some of the actual sittings or seances. These could become intimate in ways that went beyond  Victorian mores. A medium might sit in the lap of one of the investigators, for instance. This sort of detail never found its way into William James's writings on psychical research so far as I know.

This was a fascinating account.

(6 December 2007)
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BOEHM, ERIC H.

     WE SURVIVED: 14 HISTORIES OF THE HIDDEN AND HUNTED IN NAZI GERMANY (2003)

Originally published in 1949, this book presents fourteen accounts by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. The accounts contain enough specific detail about the situation in Hitler's Germany to give a chilling comprehension of the horrors involved in life in a totalitarian regime.

(18 August 2008)
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BOTSFORD, GARDNER

     A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE, MOSTLY (2003)

The author, who died in 2004 in his 80s, was an editor for the New Yorker magazine for some 40 years. This memoir is a briskly told account of his life there, with his World War II experiences thrown in for good measure.
As the stepson of the magazine's owner, Raoul Fleischmann, he was always open to the accusation of having obtained his position through his family connection. The extent to which this happened isn't made clear in the narrative, but he succeeds in diverting our attention to some of the "dirty little secrets" about the apparently close-knit New Yorker group.

By far the lengthiest account in the book concerns the disintegration of the author's close relationship with the editor-in-chief, William Shawn, as Shawn seemed stubbornly resistant to finding a replacement for himself. The portrait of Shawn is very unflattering indeed.

(4 September 2009)
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BOWEN, ELIZABETH
     
      TO THE NORTH  (1932)

"To the North" turns out to be a very bone-chilling title, but the reader will learn this only towards the end of the story, which advances in a very measured way to its conclusion, in which some lives become unravelled by the events of a few abrupt, unstoppable, harrowing moments.

In the end we are left to imagine what will happen next. The action of the story takes place in a world where everything can be meticulously planned and very little just happens in a spur-of-the-moment way.

Celia meets a man on a train, and they strike up an acquaintance. This happenstance event sets the rest of the story in motion, for it is Markie, the man Celia has met on the train, who is the catalyst.

How the author gradually shows Markie to us may be one of the most effective accomplishments of this novel. At first he seems pleasant and "acceptable" as someone fit to associate with the genteel and well-bred Emmeline and Celia and their set. But we start seeing interchanges between Markie and his sister--who is also his landlady--for instance, and later between Markie and a woman he knows that show him to be cruel and deceitful.

It is not that he is socially "beneath" Emmeline and Celia. It is that he is heartless. Though we can see that Emmeline and Celia are somewhat shallow and self-absrobed, still we can't help feeling that they should steer clear of this man.

Elizabeth Bowen's strong point here seems to be character development. She deftly delineates each character tellingly, using subtle brush strokes. But in the catastrophic scene at the end she stumbles, I think.
The scene seems painfully long.

I intend to reread this book. I'm not sure I've read it carefully enough the first time. Some writers deserve to be read with considerable care, and Elizabeth Bowen is one of them.

(16 June 2010)
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BOYLE, KEVIN

ARC OF JUSTICE: A SAGA OF RACE, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND MURDER IN THE JAZZ AGE (2004)

The author, who is a historian, has written an account of a 1925 case in which the celebrated Clarence Darrow was the lawyer for the defense.
Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys and infant daughter, an African-American family, moved into a bungalow they had bought in an all-white area of Detroit. Ossian Sweet had had a difficult struggle to become a doctor and was keenly interested in establishing his family in comfortable surroundings. He also knew that there had been recent race-hatred incidents involving similar housing battles in Detroit. Getting wind of similar opposition to his family's move, he gathered nine friends and relatives (including two brothers) in the bungalow as the family was moving in. He showed them firearms he had accumulated in the event of serious trouble.

There was serious trouble. A mob of some 400-600 white people assembled outside the bungalow and began throwing rocks. A window shattered. Gunfire came from inside the bungalow--first firing above the crowd, then closer into it, and one man was wounded, another killed.
Eleven African-Americans, including Ossian and Gladys Sweet, were put on trial for murder, as a group. The NAACP and several prominent African-Americans were very involved in the case (W. E. B. Dubois, James Weldon Johnson, and others), and eventually Clarence Darrow agreed to work for the defense.

The carefully chosen jury (of 12 white men) couldn't come to a decision, and there was a mistrial. The second time around, Darrow insisted on having each of the eleven defendants tried individually. The first to be tried was the brother of Ossian's who was the only person to have admitted firing a shot.

He was acquitted at last, and this meant that the other defendants were also allowed to go free, but it was a long and emotionally stressful time for those involved, with the defendants having to spend considerable time in a Detroit jail.

Not long afterwards, Gladys Sweet contracted TB,  probably during her stay in the crowded jail. It was transmitted to the Sweets' daughter, who died while still in infancy. Gladys Sweet also died, a few years later.
Ossian Sweet remarried a couple of times but then divorced. In the end, not yet an old man, he shot himself to death.

This is a very tragic story that sheds light on the disgraceful era when "restrictive covenants" were becoming common in the US housing market. The racism that has been rampant in the US housing situation for generations is still with us today in spite of some corrective legislation over the years.

(13 May 2008)
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BOYLE, T. CORAGHESSAN



SAN MIGUEL (2012)

     The author delved into historical records for material for this novel, set on the rugged island of San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The focus is on two families--the Waterses, who settled there in the 1880s, and the Lesters, who came along in 1930 and stayed until World War 2.

Marantha Waters and her husband Will, who was wounded at Chancellorsville, aren't well equiped for running a sheep farm, but that is what they are doing on San Miguel even though Marantha is very clearly dying of tuberculosis.

The very realistic descriptions of Marantha's physical state make for a compelling narrative. Boyle has made this woman's slow and horrible death from TB--and her heroic perseverance in spite of her suffering--vivid and horrifyingly compelling.  The reader realizes without having to be told in so many words that this woman is utterly a prisoner.

Another woman who seems to have very few choices open to her once she and her husband arrive on San Miguel many years later is Elise Lester.  This second part of the book, which could almost be two entirely separate novels, is much less successful than the first.

Herbie Lester, her husband, is gradually disintegrating into a form of dementia perhaps brought on by shell shock suffered during World War 1.  He and Elise are just as ill suited for running a sheep farm as the Waterses before them. She is 38 and has spent ten years working in the New York Public Library. And yet she copes with the primitive situation, going on to bear two daughters.

Somehow Herbie and Elise seem a bit lackluster compared to the Waterses, and the two daughters, though often in the picture, are little more than cardboard figures, saying and doing typical things but having little individual personality.

The two stories are linked together only once, briefly, by the very slender connection of Jimmy, a hired boy for the Waterses who is still around when the Lesters come. He has a few memories of the Waterses that he shares, and these are never referred to again after they come up.

Maybe Boyle wanted to show us just two families of those settlers who inhabited the island over the years--without connecting too many dots.

He has told an absorbing story and done it well.

11 January 2014


THE WILD CHILD: STORIES (2010)

An assortment of interesting stories, often with bizarre themes.  "Admiral" involves the cloning of an Afghan hound. The longest story, almost a novella, "The Wild Child," must have been based on actual accounts of Victor, the "wild child" of Aveyron.

I kept wondering how closely the author followed the known facts about this child.  There is an amazing amount of detail about how Victor behaved and how and what he ate.  

24 August 2013

    TALK TALK (2006)

The plot of this novel revolves around identity theft. Dana Halter, a deaf woman who teaches, and her boy friend, Bridger Martin, are caught up in a chaotic mess, with Dana thrown in jail because someone has assumed her identity.  A man named William Peck Wilson has been using the name Dana Martin--and living in high style, along with Natalya, his Russian girl friend and her daughter Madison.

Dana and Bridger set out in pursuit of the identity thief because they realize that the police aren't going to be of much help. After all, identity theft is a "victimless crime."

It's an exciting story, well told. The ending strikes me as unsatisfactory, however.  It is jarring. The way William Peck Wilson behaves at the end isn't like the character we have seen up to that point.  It's as if the author felt obliged to end the story but didn't quite know how.  It seems slapdash.

And the story has all of the signs of a novel wanting desperately to be a movie--including a couple of car chases.

But it was interesting anyway, and the author presents the problems facing a deaf person with sensitivity and empathy even as he's moving the action-packed story forward.

(24 March 2011)


     WITHOUT A HERO: STORIES (1994)

Absorbing stories, some parodic, most with humorous elements.

(1 June 2001)
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BRAY, ROSEMARY L.

    UNAFRAID OF THE DARK: A MEMOIR (1999)

The author has told her story and told it well--a story that needed to be told in this time when the needy are constantly being accused of laziness and other character flaws.

Rosemary Bray, born in 1955, was raised on the south side of Chicago. Her father was present in the household although his was a presence of dubious value, for, seething with rage against white people, he beat his wife and four children regularly. Rosemary and her mother and the other children lived in terror of his anger.

She never indulges in psychobabble in this narrative, never portrays herself as an abused child, as we so often find authors of memoirs and autobiographies portraying themselves. She just lays out the facts, along with her emotional responses to them. Her mother had to put the family on welfare even though there was a male "breadwinner" in the house. His "breadwinning" was sporadic--and he was a compulsive gambler.

When Rosemary was in 7th grade, she was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Francis W. Parker private school on Chicago's north side. She was plagued by mixed feelings about traveling to an entirely foreign part of town--a "whiter" part of town--for school and about associating with fellow students whose lives were radically different from her own. However, she survived her years at Francis Parker--and went on to undergraduate studies at Yale University, where she met the man she eventually married.

She became a book editor/reviewer for the New York Times.

This was a totally absorbing book.

(14 October 2007)
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BRENNAN, MAEVE

    THE ROSE GARDEN: SHORT STORIES (2000)

The stories in this collection were almost all originally published in The New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s. They are quiet narratives, often with the non-endings that were part of the standard New Yorker style. The most successful ones, in my opinion, are set in Dublin. Others take place in New York.

The last several stories in the collection concern Bluebell, a dog, and just miss being slight and whimsical. The author clearly has a talent for describing animals in a perceptive and original way.

(6 September 2008)
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BRONSON, PO

     THE NUDIST ON THE LATE SHIFT (1999)

Aside from now being outdated, this collection of anecdotes about employees in the burgeoning Silicon Valley software industry does little except for giving the author an opportunity to rhapsodize over what he perceives as a breathtakingly awe-inspiring revolution in the way we communicate information. He also gushes repeatedly about the vast fortunes being made nearly overnight by some of the computer-savvy young men who make up most of that industry.

His style is so annoying that I can't say I enjoyed this book. He likes trendy expressions, and so we have "way cool," "studly engineers," and "paradigm shift," to name a few.

( 3 February 2008)
_________________________

BROOKNER, ANITA

     A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND (1988)

Told in the first person by one Rachel Kennedy, this is the story of her association with Heather, a younger woman who is the daughter of Rachel's accountant, Oscar.

This is probably meant to be a story with an unreliable narrator, but even if it isn't, and we're supposed to take Rachel as behaving in ways we can sympathize with, her motives for the close association with Heather remain murky.

Rachel appears to be a less-fortunate hanger-on in the prosperous circle of people surrounding Heather and her parents, and she perceives her continuing to be included in their circle as Heather's parents' attempt at providing their only daughter with a friend.

Rachel perceives her own role--we learn increasingly as the story proceeds--as something of a self-appointed advocate for Heather's parents, however.  Heather marries a young man who (it is hinted) might be a homosexual, and the marriage falls apart shortly after the splendid wedding.

The hints at the young man's inadequacies, by innuendo but with no explanation of the facts, no real evidence, are troubling. But it is Rachel's version we are getting. She senses that Oscar, Heather's father, shares her doubts about the young man, but again, no more is done with this idea.

Heather, a taciturn and constantly poised young woman, doesn't seem especially inclined to like Rachel. When she leaves her marriage and promptly takes up with an Italian man whom she marries, with little or no intention of keeping up contact with her family in England, Rachel volunteers to go to Italy to try to persuade Heather to visit her very ill mother.

Rachel sees herself as carrying a torch for the values that Heather's family are desperate to maintain. After all, they have put a lot of effort into raising this one daughter, and now she is turning her back on them by marrying and living in a foreign country, taking up with her husband's family while letting her own sink or swim back in England. Where is her sense of familial obligation? Rachel will be the one to bring her to her senses.

I don't know how other readers reacted to this story, but I was struck by Heather's parents' sad acquiescence to the situation. They raised their daughter so that she could have the same opportunities for happiness that they had had, they said.  The implication is that there were no strings attached to their parenthood.

But this goes right by Rachel. When she finds that Heather has accepted the gift of freedom that her parents have so generously given her--that she still loves her parents but wants her life as she has made it--Rachel is probably defeated once and for all so far as this relationship is concerned.

We never find out if she delivered the gifts to Rachel's mother as Rachel asked her to do.  It is hard to say whether this omission was intentional on Brookner's part, or whether we are to believe that Rachel's failure to mention it is part of her somewhat addled view of the world.

Somehow this story doesn't quite come off. Heather is too perfectly poised, and Rachel's place in the group seems to vacillate. Sometimes she is a businesswoman who is doing fairly well, but at other times she is almost shrieking out her anger because people like her have to work hard all their lives while people like Heather's family have everything they want.

It isn't clear just where this novel is going.

(13 January 2012)

     LEWIS PERCY (1989)

This novel is a reflective analysis of a marriage--specifically, a marriage entered into by Lewis Percy, a retiring scholar who frequents libraries, and a woman who seems right to him in spite of having a "disability" that appears to be primarily agoraphobia--and being encumbered by a protective mother and her long-term lover.

We watch as Lewis Percy's life is dominated by this trio, but as time goes by he gets lucky.

This is a happy story, and its surprise ending is still believable--and satisfying.

I have one quibble. Brookner describes one of her characters as having "splendid Jewish teeth." Isn't this on a par with a comment like "He doesn't look Jewish" or "She has a Jewish schnoz"? And nowadays isn't it objectionable to call attention to racial and ethnic stereotypes, even if they're flattering ones?  I had never before heard of Jewish teeth as being exceptional in any way, and I can't think why they would be.

It doesn't help particularly to know that Anita Brookner is Jewish, either.

(23 January 2012)



     DOLLY (1993)

A woman narrator recalls her aunt Dolly--her mother’s brother’s wife--an older woman of European background who exploits women, including the narrator, in her greedy quest for men and material things. A surprisingly sympathetic study of a character. Beautifully written.

(5 September 1999)


     A PRIVATE VIEW (1994)


Novel about a man reaching retirement age but losing his best friend, with whom he had made retirement plans. Troubling encounter with a brassy and rude much younger woman who insinuates herself into his life by a scam involving her being "permitted" to stay in another tenant's flat in the building he lives in. Absorbing.

(2 November 1998)

     ALTERED STATES (1996)


Told by a first-person narrator, a man whose wife has killed herself after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Alan Sherwood, the narrator, is selfish and egocentric, with a self-destructive but very persistent yearning for a selfish and inconsiderate woman, Sarah, who eventually marries money, lives in France, and vanishes from Alan’s scene. It is hard to say just what the center of this novel is. Most of the characters aren’t especially likable.

(1 September 1999)

     VISITORS (1997)

Thea May, 70, a widow living alone, extends hospitality to Steve Best, who is to be the best man for her American granddaughter’s wedding. The unsettling visit by Ann, the granddaughter, and her fiance, David, and the best man, with the revelation that the marriage has been necessitated by Ann’s pregnancy, leads Thea to come to terms with her aging and eventual death. Very good book.

(18 February 2000)

        FALLING SLOWLY (1998)

This is a moderately bleak story about two aging sisters and the arrangements and rearrangements in their lives as their situations change.  Miriam works as a translator, and her sister Beatrice has been an accompanist but loses her job and begins to show signs of failing.

Miriam carries on an affair with the handsome man who was designated to give Beatrice the bad news about her employment. We watch as Miriam becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts at holding onto her married lover. 

The events in this story are sad, but Brookner depicts them with interesting insights and attention to nuances that give them an importance beyond being sad.

(26 April 2011)


         _____________________________


BROOKS, GWENDOLYN

       REPORT FROM PART ONE (1972)

Like Report from Part Two, this is a somewhat loosely assembled collection of reminiscences, poems, and letters, along with a considerable number of photos.

Here we get glimpses of the poet's childhood in Chicago, of her early years of adulthood, and of the breakup of her marriage.  We see how large a role she must have played in the Black arts scene in Chicago over many years. She was instrumental in organizing a writing workshop for some members of the Blackstone Rangers, a South Side gang, for instance.  Her diligent and generous efforts at inspiring poetry-writing and an appreciation for poetry in children have been amazing.

She makes a strong case for her belief that integration is not the whole answer for American Black people. She herself believed in integration at one time but later abandoned it in favor of an interest in promoting Black culture as an independent entity deserving  far more respect than it was getting.

Hers is not an angry voice but a discouraged, resigned and realistic one. She feels integration has been too slow a process, with results that have only minimal significance. She believes that Black people have to see themselves as beautiful and assertively powerful before real progress can be made.

This book came out in 1972. Events of the last 39 years seem to be proving her right. Racial prejudice is still abroad in the land, sometimes hiding in corners and veiled, sometimes very much out in the open.

At one point in this compendium of interviews, snippets of poems, and memories she suddenly gives a brief but very graphic description of a Mississippi lynching. Placed as it is in the book, it can only shock the reader, and I suspect that her intent was to let this bit of grim reality pack as much of a wallop as possible.

(24 June 2011)
     
       REPORT FROM PART TWO (1996)

Without having read Report from Part One, I may be in no position to judge this 1996 work, which is a compendium of some of Gwendolyn Brooks's poems and other writings, including quite a number of brief introductory speeches she gave in her capacity as poetry consultant for the U. S. Library of Congress.

Much of the writing here is "official." It was written for various occasions and has to say nice things about people.  But there is a portrait of her mother that is quite readable, and some of the events in the life of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks have been remarkable and are described here.

There is a vignette involving the author Susan Sontag that shows Sontag in a very unflattering light, for instance. 

As one of the pre-eminent Black voices on the literary scene in the 20th century, Gwendolyn Brooks deserves to be taken seriously. In fact, all of her opinions in this collection are well worth reading. They are original, well argued and thoughtful. Her reflections on single parenthood, for instance, are outspoken and persuasive.

And, for the record, Gwendolyn Brooks dislikes the term African-American, preferring Black (with a capital B).

5 July 2010
____________________________

BROWNLEE, SHANNON

    OVERTREATED: WHY TOO MUCH MEDICINE IS MAKING US SICKER AND POORER (2007)

The author, a reporter, has written a very persuasive book arguing that in the US, one reason for skyrocketing medical costs is simply that we expect too much medical care--far more than we really need. In fact, she maintains, with medical care less is often more--and she demonstrates how too much medical care can actually harm the patient, as when invasive medical procedures are done unnecessarily.

She sees the flaws in a system that encourages doctors to see as many patients as possible in a day and would like to see primary care doctors restored to their former status instead of disappearing from the scene. She sees many advantages in a system where doctors are salaried.
Like another author on this topic, Marcia Angell, MD, she deplores the creation of "new diseases" or "pre-diseases"--osteopenia being one of her examples. The rise to prominence of osteopenia (said to be early osteoporosis) as a "pre-disease" has led to widespread prescribing of somewhat risky drugs like Fosamax.

This is an excellent book, much needed just now, when the US health care system is being closely scrutinized and found to be seriously wanting.

(20 September 2009)
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BROYARD, ANATOLE

       KAFKA WAS THE RAGE: A GREENWICH VILLAGE MEMOIR
(1993)

Terrible account of the author’s life. He never met a sexual encounter he doesn't insist on including in this short work. The author is said to have been revealed as a "person of color" though he successfully concealed his racial identity all his life. Race is not touched upon in this book.

(20 April 2001)
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BUMILLER, ELISABETH

      THE SECRETS OF MARIKO: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A JAPANESE  WOMAN AND HER FAMILY
(1995)

The author, a Washington Post reporter, wanted to give a picture of the daily life of a typical Japanese woman, and--during an extended 1991 stay in Tokyo with her husband and children--she found Mariko Tanaka, 44, a housewife and mother who agreed to be interviewed for a year. With the help of an interpreter, the author carried on conversations with Mariko and her husband and three children as well as with Mariko's elderly parents, who lived in the same house.

Japan, which bans immigration, is still a very homogeneous society, and some features of its rigid, structured lifestyle are probably difficult for outsiders to understand.The author tells us that Japanese is among the most difficult languages in the world, and we catch glimpses of some of its difficulties when she tells of the special vocabularies that are used only in particular situations--"sublanguages" that exist within the main language but are reserved for certain purposes (when respect is called for, for instance).

Mariko works almost nonstop and rarely has a moment for herself--a situation probably common to housewives and mothers everywhere but taken for granted in Japan, where the men work till midnight in office jobs. Mariko's husband, a "salary man," seems typical, although the stress of such incessant work clearly takes its toll, for he occasionally disappears on drinking binges.

Mariko, in addition to being the chief cook and bottlewasher for her husband and children, helps with the care of her aging parents. She is active in the PTA and in local religious festivals. She works half-time as a meter reader, a job she enjoys for the opportunity it provides her to get out and meet other people.

Sometimes Elisabeth Bumiller describes Mariko's preparations for a family meal in detail, and we become aware of a diet that seems almost totally devoid of desserts but rich in seafood and vegetables.
Japanese politeness is celebrated the world over. In Japan courtesy takes forms that would strike a Westerner as extraordinary. For instance, there is the custom of staying in touch with your children's elementary school teachers year after year by having one of the class mothers be in charge of an annual get-together. This thoughtfulness toward a child's former teacher is also meant to provide a greater sense of continuity in the child's experience. This makes eminent good sense to me.

Elisabeth Bumiller has shown a fascinating world where the people lead their lives in a peace-loving, graceful, practical way. I found this book captivating from beginning to end.


(7 April 2003)
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BUSCH, FREDERICK

     GIRLS


Novel set in upstate New York about a campus cop whose marriage isn’t going well since the couple’s infant daughter was a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. Fanny, his wife, is a nurse. The couple are apparently unable to have another child and are finding the loss overwhelming. Jack, the main character, has a macho streak, is given to beating up on suspects he dislikes, and has a chip on his shoulder about academics. Some of the parodic treatments of academese are right on target in this novel.

Jack as a character is a bit of a puzzle--his motivations aren’t always clear. Why he falls into an affair with a woman professor isn’t made plain, especially as his wife, whom he still loves, knows about it.

The action of the novel centers around Jack’s attempt to solve the case of a missing teenaged girl. He succeeds in the attempt but the outcome is tragic, though the reader has been prepared for the outcome well in advance. An absorbing book.


(20 November 2002)
____________________________
BYATT, A. S.
  
    A WHISTLING WOMAN (2002)

Maybe A. S. Byatt and I are just not kindred spirits. I've read one or two of her other novels and felt the same irritation that I felt with A Whistling Woman....

There are too many characters in the novel to keep track of. The author herself doesn't keep very good track of them, either. But then she's dealing with the vast panorama of a university in the 1960s, with an anti-university springing up in its vicinity. On its property, as a matter of fact, and wouldn't you know? The university wins out over the little band of rebels in their encampment.

A. S. Byatt is rather emphatically on the side of the university in spite of her attempts at making satiric thrusts at both sides. The implication here is that the rebels' "real" objective is to ease their own lives by forcing the university to soften up its foreign-language requirements.

My biggest problem with this novel is that the characters don't come alive. They aren't fleshed out enough. There is too much going on here, and Byatt is apparently eager to show off her knowledge of just about everything under the sun.

The result is a novel that is showy but without much depth. Perhaps I would care more about the main character, Frederica, if I had read the rest of the quartet of novels involving her. But I doubt it.

(25 March 2006)
______________________________

C

CAMPBELL, BEBE MOORE


     SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR (1998)

This book was a bestseller, and I have a hunch that the author was aiming at the bestseller list as she wrote it. It has all of the earmarks of a book written with sales in mind--and of course a movie version.

I wish she hadn't taken this route but who can blame a writer for trying hard for sales?

In spite of this reservation, I liked the book. It tells an unflaggingly interesting story, told in a lively way with witty dialogue. Maxine is a woman in her thirties, married to Satchel, a lawyer, and they are both African-Americans living in Los Angeles, where Maxine is the executive producer of a successful TV show resembling "Donahue."

Maxine, pregnant with the couple's first child, makes a couple of trips back to Philadelphia, where the grandmother who raised her still lives. Lindy Walker, the grandmother, was a well-known singer but she has had a stroke and appears to be descending into depression and alcoholism.

Maxine tries hard not to meddle in her grandmother's life but she is drawn into the specifics of her life, renewing old connections in her former neighborhood and pulling together the strands that will enable Lindy to stage a comeback.

Meanwhile, the pressures of her job are mounting, and eventually she has to face the failure of the show--but everything turns out beautifully because she's having a baby anyway.

The standard social-work line is overdone in this book. If Bebe Moore Campbell had done less analyzing and limited herself to telling a good story, this book would have been much better. She has an excellent command of contemporary conversational language. If only she could have let the characters speak without providing commentary.

(19 February 2010)


     YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE (1992)

The world needed Bebe Moore Campbell, who died a few years ago at the age of 56. I read her memoir, Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad, a while back--a very absorbing account and well told.

This novel, which takes place in Mississippi and Chicago, begins with the murder of a black teenager, Armstrong Todd, by a white man (abetted by his father and brother) seeking to avenge an imagined bit of flirtation between Armstrong and the white man's wife, Lily.

This part of the story sounds like the Emmett Till case but I don't know if the author had it in mind. It doesn't matter, for it is the kind of incident that was all too common in the south for centuries.

It is Armstrong's untimely death that shapes the lives of many of the other people in the novel, and we follow them into early old age. Armstrong's mother and grandmother, his father, and then there are the whites, whose lives are shown running parallel to those of the segregated black people in the story--Lily and her husband and his brother.

The author has not written a diatribe against white people though she very easily might have. She has understood the white people in her story. She has the rare gift of seeing why her enemies might be the way they are and of explaining them to us.

Along the way she gives us glimpses into routine examples of what it was like to live in a segregated world--the missed medical care, the missed education, the closed doors that black people faced every day of their lives and still face all too often in the US.

Bebe Moore Campbell has beautifully written a story that enhances the reader's perception of the way people have been--and still are--in the real world.

(12 December 2009)

__________________________
CAMPBELL, DENELE PITTS

     NOTES OF A PIANO TUNER
(1997)


Brief collection of pleasant reminiscences by a woman who became a piano tuner after having learned piano-tuning from her father. She tells of her experiences tuning pianos in homes and churches in the Ozark Mountains. She writes well and has something interesting and amusing to say--far more than can be said of many published writers.


(21 February 2005)
_________________________


CAMUS, ALBERT
     THE FIRST MAN (1995)

This beginning of an autobiographical novel was published more than 30 years after the author's untimely death.  Camus's daughter explains in an introductory note that the family hesitated to publish such a raw and clearly unfinished work earlier because the climate of opinion at the time of her father's death was hostile in spite of his Nobel Prize.  The family felt that the imperfections in this fragmentary start of a novel would be glaring enough to make unfavorable criticism only too easy.

However, eventually the decision was made to publish it as it was, complete with the author's marginal notes to himself.

It is a fascinating and often beautiful work, fragmentary though it is.  Camus has chosen to write an autobiography casting himself in the third person, possibly in order to gain objectivity as he wrote.  In the story he is Jacques, a boy whose father died in World War I and who lives with his nearly illiterate and severely hearing-impaired mother and his grandmother (his mother's mother) in Algeria.

The family is not just poor but abjectly poor.  But Jacques comes under the influence of a remarkable schoolmaster who arranges for him to go to the lycée on a scholarship.

At 13 he is put to work at a paying summer job because his grandmother believes he should contribute to the family income. He has to lie about his age even to get a job. A showdown comes after he has had to mislead his employer into thinking he will be a permanent employee when he himself knows very well he will be returning to the lycée. At the end of the summer he finds he can't follow his grandmother's advice and just walk off without returning. His employer learns that he has lied but takes a certain amount of pity on him and at least sends him packing with his final paycheck, which he might have kept.

The part of the novel that exists centers around Jacques's experiences in the poverty of Algeria--and around his developing courage in standing up to the stern grandmother who has beaten him regularly. The schoolmaster has beaten him too, but it is the grandmother's power that is the more formidable.

The writing is extraordinarily self-revelatory for Camus, who normally writes very restrained prose in his fiction. The style is so different from his other writing that one is tempted to wonder if he might have been experimenting with using James Joyce or Faulkner as a model. Or maybe his intention was to let all of the experience escape on the page and later to tighten up the writing. 

The most remarkable passages are those dealing with the Algerian setting. He  makes it come alive, much as he did so memorably  in The Plague, set in the town of Oran.

His was not a religious childhood although he went through the first communion ritual--but only because it was just what one did at that time and in that community.  His family paid no attention to masses, rosaries, or priests and never prayed. They were too busy trying to survive to have much energy or time left over for anything else.

This start of a novel provides fascinating glimpses into the mind of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, a man who spoke out repeatedly against tyranny and totalitarianism in its many manifestations.

(16 June 2011)
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ČAPEK, KAREL
     WAR WITH THE NEWTS (1936)

An amazingly prescient novel, a work of fantasy that envisages an increasingly powerful group of newts who have been trained by humans to talk. Slaves may be the obvious analogue to the newts, but the story is not so simple as that. While it is at it, the novel takes ironic pokes at Americans, racism, and nationalism, while maintaining its very strongly pro-Czech stance. Written only two years before the author's untimely death, and during the ominous rise of Nazism in Germany, this book is grim and all too perceptive about humanity.

(1 December 2005)
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CARROLL, DAVID L. & DORMAN, JON DUDLEY, MD, LIVING WELL WITH MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS: A GUIDE FOR PATIENT, CAREGIVER, & FAMILY (1993)

Reading this book in 2009 is a strange experience. The "disease-modifying drugs" appear to have been unknown in 1993, when this book came out, for they aren't mentioned here. Also, MRIs were still new at the time.

So the book is badly in need of updating, but it is full of practical common-sense advice and is particularly good as a resource on exercises.

(28 June 2009)
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CATHER, WILLA



    SAPPHIRA AND THE SLAVE GIRL
(1940)

Short novel about a Virginia family in 1856, with Sapphira, the mistress of the household, turning against her favorite slave girl, Nancy. Nancy, in danger of being raped by a visiting nephew of her master’s, manages to escape to Canada by the Underground Railroad with the help of Sapphira’s daughter Rachel Blake.

Good book, though it almost seems as if Cather might have lost interest in it when only half done, for its epilogue seems tacked on as an afterthought, meant perhaps just to wind up the book.

(9 March 2002)
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CHEEVER, JOHN
    BULLET PARK (1969)

I found this novel to be a slog.  There's a character named Nailles, and then there's a character named Hammer. The story becomes increasingly bizarre as time goes on.

I can't say much to recommend it though there are some witty passages.

24 June 2013
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CHEEVER, SUSAN

     NOTE FOUND IN A BOTTLE: MY LIFE AS A DRINKER
(1999)

Life story of the daughter of writer John Cheever, exploring her family’s struggle with alcoholism and refusal to face it. This is a very privileged woman’s history but honestly told.


(23 July 2001)

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CHERNIN, KIM
  
     THE OBSESSION: REFLECTIONS ON THE TYRANNY OF SLENDERNESS (1981)

This is a very thorough and thoughtful exploration of the modern woman's obsession with being thin, an obsession that has shown no sign of waning over the decades since this book appeared.

The author has mined the psychological literature, especially material in the Freudian camp, but she isn't just parroting psychoanalytic theory here.  Her idea is that women inherently have so much power--to conceive, bear, and nourish children--that we inspire fear, and with fear often comes a wish to stifle us,  to keep us subservient.

She has very little explanation for how the world got this way but offers many persuasive examples of ways in which it is this way.  It is not her objective to go into the historical and economic developments that helped this situation to come into being. Rather, she is interested in persuading us that the emphasis on being thin is dangerous, manipulative, controlling, and very unfair--and ought to come to an end.

She gives special attention to anorexia nervosa, and this is one place where an updated version of this book would be very helpful, for considerable work has been done on investigating eating disorders in recent years.

(2 May 2010)
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CHILDERS, THOMAS

    THE SHADOWS OF WAR: AN AMERICAN PILOT'S ODYSSEY THROUGH
OCCUPIED FRANCE AND IN THE CAMPS OF NAZI GERMANY (2002)

The author of this account of Roy Allen's World War 2 experiences after his plane was shot down is a professor of history who has written other books about Nazi Germany. Roy Allen, as the pilot, was the last crew member to parachute out of the plane, and he lost track of the rest of the crew for quite a while. He found shelter with a French family who were sympathetic to the Resistance at a time when France was overrun with Germans and opposing the occupying Nazis was very dangerous.

Eventually Roy was caught in his attempt to escape from France and return to his unit--and he was sent to Buchenwald, where he languished (and nearly died) for many months, although he should have been in a camp for military prisoners of war. His situation improved only as the war was ending.

This is a moving account, containing highly detailed descriptions of everyday life at Buchenwald. I have read other accounts of concentration camp life, but this one offers a closeup look at the routines and the horrors of the prisoners' unimaginably nightmarish existence there.

(3 February 2007)
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CHOPIN, KATE

   "THE AWAKENING" AND SELECTED STORIES



The author was a turn-of-century writer, and she has recently become the darling of the feminists. Her writing contains much Southern bigotry.


(9 August 1998)
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CLEMENS, SAMUEL L. [MARK TWAIN]


    A MURDER, A MYSTERY, AND A MARRIAGE (1876; published 2003)

This very brief narrative was written as a skeleton plot for a writing contest Mark Twain envisaged as a way of attracting readers to his friend William Dean Howells's magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. Twain would provide the skeleton plot, and other invited established writers--including the unlikely Henry James--would supply their own stories based on the skeleton plot. Nobody ever submitted an entry, and the project died--with Twain's story lying unpublished until 2003.

It has appeared now with excellent commentary by Roy Blount, Jr., who fills us in on a number of relevant details about Twain's life and attitudes.
The story itself is slight and somewhat corny, but it was meant only as a skeleton plot. For reasons that are obscure, Twain used the occasion to poke fun at Jules Verne's novels--and this segment of the brief narrative is hilarious.

(8 August 2009)

    LETTERS FROM THE EARTH (1939; 1962)

These posthumously appearing essays and fragments underwent drastic restoration in the 1962 version. By this time Clara Clemens, the author's daughter, had given permission to publish an unexpurgated edition. Here we presumably have the "real" Mark Twain, bitterly cynical and opposed to organized religion.

(10 February 2006)

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COHEN, RANDY
     
     THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE DIFFERENCE: HOW TO TELL RIGHT FROM WRONG IN EVERYDAY SITUATIONS (2002)

For some years I'd been aware of a syndicated newspaper column about ethics, and I glanced at it enough times to be interested in this book, which is mainly a collection of some of his columns. The column as it ran in The New York Times was called "The Ethicist."

Although the author has no particular training in ethics or philosophy, his down-to-earth advice and ability to articulate his views clearly seem to have won him an audience. He has spent a large part of his life as a writer for various TV shows, and the Times discontinued his column when he donated to MoveOn.org, evidently because he was unaware that the paper had recently adopted a policy prohibiting its writers from contributing to activist organizations.

This background information comes from Wikipedia, however, and may be open to question.

Readers write in with their ethical problems, and he replies. Sometimes there are follow-ups and responses from other readers. Occasionally there is a guest columnist replying.  It is particularly refreshing when a pundit of this sort is willing to reassess his opinion and admit he was wrong, and Randy Cohen does so several times in this short book.

Ethical questions can often be murky, and one problem with the book is that sometimes the readers' descriptions of their problems lack detail. One needs to know more about the situation before replying, I should think.

But the book is witty and amusing, and I usually agreed with his opinions.

21 February 2012
_________________________________
COHEN, RICHARD M.

     BLINDSIDED: LIFTING A LIFE ABOVE ILLNESS: A RELUCTANT MEMOIR (2004)


The author, who happens to be married to Meredith Viera, the TV news broadcaster and talk-show host, was also in the TV news business until multiple sclerosis and other disorders entered his life. He tells his story, with considerable discussion about the impact of his illness on his wife and three children. After the MS diagnosis, he was found to have colon cancer, which returned later. The surgeries and their complications, and the pain of the colon cancer, made their family life difficult, but Richard Cohen takes a wryly humorous view of himself and freely owns up to his mistakes.

His father is a doctor who also has MS, and his grandmother had MS as well (although she apparently never realized it).

This is a well-told and honest account of coming to terms with chronic illness.
(7 January 2008)
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CONRAD, JOSEPH


    THE END OF THE TETHER (1902)

An aging captain, who had gained some distinction previously with his maritime achievements, has lost most of his money in a business transaction that failed and is now widowed with one daughter, who lives in Australia, married and with children. He’s very devoted to the daughter and  disturbed to learn that her husband has become an invalid, useless as a support for the family, and she is having to run a boarding house to support them, including the invalid husband. The captain takes on a three-year-job as skipper of a vessel, a job no one else wants because the owner is also the craft’s engineer and is a bitter, paranoid, hostile person. The captain puts his remaining funds into a part-ownership of this vessel on condition that after three years he can leave and withdraw the full amount, which he counts on doing—so he can give it, intact, to his daughter to help her. But it develops, on nearly the last run of this steamer, that the captain is losing his sight and has been doing so for quite a while without telling anyone—not wanting to upset his daughter and afraid of losing his job on the steamer. He keeps on concealing his disability, but one or two envious men on board have figured it out, and one—the owner—is convinced that Captain Whalley is lying when he says he has no more money. The owner bought the vessel by winning a lottery, and ever since he has been obsessed with playing the lottery, hoping to win again. His greed is frightening. He plots to throw the steamer off its course and deliberately wreck his own vessel so as to collect insurance money.


This novella is affecting, with its story of Whalley’s tragic death. The captain is noble in his rather simple determination to be of use to his child, even to the extent of concealing a serious physical impairment so as to spare his daughter the worry—and to safeguard the only employment he has that will enable him to help her.
 
10 January 1995
 
    THE NIGGER OF THE "NARCISSUS": A TALE OF THE SEA (1897)

James Wait, the man on board the “Narcissus” who holes up, allegedly too ill to work for most of the voyage, astonished me by the way he subjugates most of the men, playing on their pity and fear in order to get them to serve him. Even more surprising was his accomplishing this in spite of being black and therefore contemptible in the opinion of most of the others.

The author of the preface supposes that the story’s theme is the demoralization of the men by James Wait and his illness (or “illness”). Towards the end of the voyage he is accused of malingering, which he admits, but it is soon obvious that he actually does have TB. Eventually he dies, but not before at least one of the men has had the bright idea of trying to take advantage of his vulnerability by robbing him, and not before the idea has become current that a dying man on board is bad luck and has caused the ship to be becalmed. I fail to see that the men are demoralized at all. The final judgment on them (by the narrator) is that they were a good lot.


At first I thought that the story would concern the resentment of a closed community whose labor is needed for its own survival when one of its number is or pretends to be unable to work, but this is only a secondary motif. In fact, in spite of the occasional murmurings of resentment to the effect that the others were having to do extra work on account of the disabled man, who would still collect his pay while doing nothing, but the others would get no extra pay for their extra contributions, the ultimate result of the severely strained voyage seems to be that they all come through it unscathed. So even on board ship, where the number of hands needed for a given voyage has to be very carefully calculated, the group can endure the incapacity of one of its number and even the laziness of numbers of others without any harm and can even find the time and resources to shower the disabled man with sympathy, visits, and gifts, even though James Wait is unlikable and imperious in the extreme.

It is the possibility that he might not live to set foot on land that inspires the crew to so much compassion, and indeed he does not live.

(25 March 1986)
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COUPLAND, DOUGLAS

     GENERATION X
(1991)

Dag, Claire, and Andy are the three main characters--all in their twenties, with Dag the narrator. These young adults have parents who are apparently far from indigent or indifferent, but they feel alienated from their families. These people hold McJobs, and in their spare time (of which they have a great deal) they pop pills carelessly and indulge in pointless fantasies as if they might be undiscovered literary geniuses just waiting to happen. They have easy mobility--they travel around freely in planes and take cars as a given. They gloom, they sulk, they come up with vague but probably meaningful remarks.

This is Kerouac all over again, and I found Kerouac tiresome. Generation X seems to be accusing the older generation of having created a bleak world, but some members of the older generation may be horrified at the self-absorption they must have fostered in their offspring by letting that TV stay on so much of the time and by subscribing to the idea that one's children are the center of the universe. This is what those children have grown up to be--navel-gazers par excellence.



(1992)
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COURTIER, MARIE-ANNICK

     COOKING WELL: MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS (2009)


This cookbook is part of a series called Cooking Well, with each cookbook intended for a specific disorder (osteoporosis is one). I haven't looked at any of the other books in the series and so don't know if some recipes are repeated in other volumes.

The Foreword is by Vincent F. Macaluso, MD, who is a neurologist specializing in MS who also has MS. Dr. Macaluso is also listed as being on the BiogenIdec National Faculty, and he takes Tysabri. The author's credentials are less clear, but she dedicates the book to two friends who have MS.

A paperback book of 150 pages for about $9.00--not a bad deal, you say? Maybe for some it will be a treasure, but I'm returning my copy for a refund.

I was hoping for some helpful recipes. I am glad that the nutrition information for each is included, but I'm not sure how accurate some of it is. A granola recipe calls for "muesli cereal" without specifying what kind--or even what ingredients go into the muesli--leading me to question the nutrition information for the granola because there are so many varieties of muesli out there, and many people use their own muesli recipes, which can differ widely in their calorie counts and other nutrition information.

The first 38 pages of the book are taken up by general advice and nutrition information--mostly of the standard sort that is widely available. I'd have welcomed more suggestions on how to open jars and bottles safely, how to avoid getting burned or over-exposed to kitchen heat, and how to do basic tasks with fumbling hands, dim eyesight, and general unsteadiness.

The recipes should please vegetarians as there are over 35 recipes that do not involve meat, poultry, or fish.

However, many people with MS don't have the money for the kinds of ingredients called for in these recipes--and often they don't have the means of visiting the places that sell some of the more obscure ones: anchovy fillets, cilantro, wild rice, Portobello mushrooms, almond meal, flaxseeds, ginger root, wild smoked salmon, Pecorino cheese.

Nor can it be assumed that someone with MS has a blender, a food processor, a microwave oven, as many of these recipes assume.
The 6x9-inch format is a handy size, though I'd have preferred a spiral-bound book that could lie flat. Also, many bits of important information are set in black type against a fairly dark gray background, which is difficult to read.

Some of the recipes seem so slight that I wonder why they were included--except perhaps to bulk up the book. Cottage Cheese, Raisins, and Walnuts (1 serving) is an example. And there is no index--a big shortcoming, in my opinion. If you want to see if the book includes a recipe for chicken cacciatore, for instance, you can find out only by leafing through its pages until you find it.

And though the author knows the meaning of "brunoise," I had to look on the Internet to find out what it meant. It was in no print dictionary I own. I've read a few cookbooks over the years and never encountered this term, but I'm not a gourmet cook. It would have been nice if the book had included an alphabetical glossary of terms like brunoise and bouquet garni. Bouquet garni is defined in the thirty-five pages of informational text preceding the actual recipes, but it's hard to find. Every cookbook that uses the term seems to have a slightly different description of what a bouquet garni is.

Many of the recipes are for 4 servings and are usually simple enough for a mobility-impaired person to manage, given the right ingredients and equipment. And that's the problem.
All too often material about MS or for someone with MS seems to assume that the person with MS is fairly prosperous. It's time to put an end to that idea and recognize that this disorder isn't limited to people with high incomes. Unfortunately, this book doesn't serve the needs of everyone who might have MS, and that is a great shame.

(3 July 2009)

________________________________
COYLE, PATRICIA K., MD, and HALPER, JUNE
     MEETING THE CHALLENGE OF PROGRESSIVE MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS (2001)

Since this book came out ten years ago, its information is often out of date. For instance, Rebif was not available in the US as a disease-modifying therapy for MS when this book appeared. And the authors' recommendations on PSAT and mammography testing are no longer current.

But the book is full of common-sense advice on the management of this chronic and disabling disorder.

(17 July 2011)
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CREWS, FREDERICK
       THE MEMORY WARS (1995)

This book consists of some essays by Crews on Freudian theory in connection with the “repressed memory syndrome” that has enjoyed some popularity--and it includes several detailed rebuttals by eminences in the psychotherapy field. Crews is a tad vitriolic, but I thought his argument was basically very persuasive—and one that desperately needs airing. It is time to debunk “repressed memory” theories.


Crews surveys the recent literature on repressed memory—the book is well supplied with references—and remarks that the seminal work, the one that sold extremely well and is often mentioned in other works, is a work by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal (1988).

Crews maintains that this book has had an immense influence—and that one effect of its inflammatory and irresponsible theorizing has been to destroy family ties. Lawsuits have been filed against allegedly abusive parents 30 years after the “fact”—and some of these parents, usually innocent, are languishing in jail—all on the basis of “repressed memories” dredged up by their grown children.

The Memory Wars should be a much-needed corrective.
 
16 February 1998
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CUMMINGS, BRUCE [BARBELLION, W. N. P., pseud.]

      THE JOURNAL OF A DISAPPOINTED MAN (1919)




I read this book in 1980 but it was memorable. It is one of the earliest known accounts by someone with disseminated (multiple) sclerosis. The author, who was British, lived from 1889 to 1919. He tells of discovering that his brothers had concealed his diagnosis from him.
This is his actual diary although there is not much detail about his symptoms. What he does say is harrowing.

Some photos of him can be found at http://www.google.com/search?q=W.+N.+P.+Barbellion+photos&hl=en&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&rlz=1I7GGLL_en&prmd=ivnso&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=gpCmTernNYGdgQez4In0BQ&ved=0CBcQsAQ&biw=775&bih=307

(3 August 2004)
UPDATED 7 July 2009:
Someone who commented here has called my attention to two Websites where this book is available for Internet reading:
http://www.archive.org/details/journalofdisappo00barbuoft
and
http://www.pseudopodium.org/barbellionblog
Many thanks to Katja!
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