30 June 2005




Jhumpa Lahiri has a fine eye for telling details, but aside from that and her ability to let a story flow forward as if on its own momentum, I can't say I admire her fiction.

The problem may be the subject matter. She's probably writing about what she knows best--the situations faced by East Indians who find themselves in the United States--and she is probably giving an accurate and detailed picture.

These East Indians are very, very privileged. They come to the US and take jobs at MIT or Wellesley College. They go to Swarthmore.  They live in the most affluent areas in or near Boston.  The situations they are facing all too often involve spending immense sums of money.

They have excellent cameras at the ready. They think nothing of traveling all over the map. 

It's not that only the indigent have stories worth telling or hearing about. It's that these particular stories of Jhumpa Lahiri's have the effect of highlighting the vast gap between the well-off and the poor in the world, even though I suspect that this was by no means the author's intention. There are almost no characters with money problems in these stories.

However, she is calling attention to an entirely new way of life on this planet. People can now live with a toehold in several countries at once, never really at home in any country but always resettling, thinking nothing of crossing oceans frequently. Geography gets terribly in the way of the working out of their lives, and there lies the dilemma.  Friendships and even marriages no longer bind people as they once did.  People can just pack up and leave for some distant land. They do this because they have to--or sometimes just because they want to.

8 September 2011


The author, trained in sociology, summarizes several varieties of "shadow work." He notes a trend toward shifting effort involved in many everyday transactions and purchases onto the consumer. When added up, these instances of "shadow work" constitute a considerable erosion into the average person's available free time and energy.

For instance, there are many restaurants now that require customers to bus their own tables and even to assemble their own meals, dispensing with hostesses, sommeliers, waitresses or waiters, busboys and cashiers. Computers are sold to us but we have less and less access to adequate tech support. ATMs have done away with bank clerks. Travel agents are going out of style. Interestingly, Lambert selects gift cards as yet another example of "shadow work":  If a gift-giver is spared the trouble of getting to know the gift recipient's tastes and preferences well enough to choose a gift and spared the effort of sorting through possible choices, ordering and packaging and delivering an individual gift, the recipient has the responsibility to use the gift card, usually at one particular store. Lambert has done some research here and found that a large number of gift cards are never used. They are lost or forgotten about--and so stores love issuing them.

He perceives that "shadow work" must be a boon to the economy but  he laments the toll it is taking on human relations and the sense of community that earlier times enjoyed.

This was a thoughtful book that focused on an important problem in this high-tech era.

16 March 2017



This is a very short account by the actor who became known for playing the role of Squiggy on a sitcom, the "Laverne and Shirley Show." Since I've never seen the show and have almost no knowledge of it, I can't say much about this book as it pertains to the show.

Aside from that, however, David Lander tells about the gradual onset of symptoms of multiple sclerosis, about how he refused to admit anything was the matter--and about how he felt obliged to conceal his diagnosis from those around him for fear of losing out on opportunities for employment.

This fear was well-founded, as he demonstrates by telling of incidents where he was given the brushoff by potential employers as soon as his diagnosis came to light.

Eventually, as he decided to go public about it, he became a "goodwill ambassador" for the US National MS Society.

There are better accounts of a person's confrontation with MS. This one is slight--and some of the statements are incorrect.

And he states that he began on Betaseron but later switched to Avonex. He never explains why he made the change, but I would have liked to know the reasons.

Still, his likable and ebullient personality comes through in this book, which he lightens with a great deal of humor.

8 January 2008




A Boston art student in her early twenties is stalked, then brutally shot and killed by an ex-boy friend. Her father tells the story and blames the judicial and law-enforcement systems for not preventing his daughter's murder.

March 1998


This memoir by the son of the well-known humor writer Ring Lardner seems to have been written when the author was 85 (he died in 2000). He was a celebrated screenwriter--and a member of the "Hollywood 10," who had to serve a prison sentence as a result of his alleged Communist activities. For 15 years he was blacklisted in Hollywood, too.

In this book he gives an account of his struggle to restore his employability--as well as numerous interesting anecdotes about various movie producers he worked with and stars he knew (Katharine Hepburn, for one).

He also tells about his work on the movie M.A.S.H.

Sometimes he seems self-pitying in this memoir, but it seems understandable. Many people turned their backs on him in an hour of need.

16 January 2007


This book would have been more useful if it had gone into more depth about the killer's background, but it's mostly just a collection of news snippets and Internet communications.

The killer, Philip Markoff, must have used some careful planning to carry out his crimes--three armed robberies and a murder, all in the space of a week and all involving women he contacted through Craigslist.

Markoff--who killed himself while awaiting trial in 2010--was a promising young medical student at Boston University, probably in his second year. He was engaged to be married, his father was a dentist, he was known as a "regular guy"--with one or two very definite  reservations expressed by persons--like his former lab partner--who had had some dealings with him.

The question arises: How carefully are doctors screened before being allowed to practice medicine?  With Internet courses replacing traditional education settings, students don't have to spend much time in class or interacting with their teachers and fellow students.  This is even true of medical school if this book is to be believed.

This man was leading a secret life that apparently led to his catastrophic downfall.  The authors stress that it wasn't his sexual preferences that caused him to snap, if that is how to describe what happened to him during the week of his crime spree.  It might have been the secret nature of a large part of his life, however: maintaining these interests while concealing them from everyone must have been a strain added to the stress of being a medical student.

This book was worth reading only for its evidence that not all aspiring doctors (or maybe even doctors in practice) are trustworthy. Some, it seems, are very dangerous.

21 November 2012



Jonathan Pine, who has several aliases, is the night manager/hotelier but has a range of other hats he wears as he pursues "Dicky" Roper, the Bad Guy in an international arms-for-drugs trading setup.

A well-written book and probably well constructed, but I found the language of espionage hard to follow in spots. I might have appreciated it more if I'd read more work in this genre.

1 March 2002


The author gives a balanced and well-researched account of the life of Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, weaving her way through a maze of intricate situations in order to determine who might have betrayed the hiding place in Holland where the Frank family lived with some friends during part of World War 2.

She portrays Otto Frank as an exceptionally conscientious and capable person whose concern for his family was always uppermost in his mind.  He himself was imprisoned in a concentration camp but he was luckier than the other members of his family. His wife and two daughters did not survive to see the liberation of the camps.

Much of the account is devoted to the aftermath of the discovery of Anne's diary--including Otto Frank's efforts at preventing the diary from being published or dramatized in ways that would harm the people involved or that would misrepresent the facts. There is also considerable detail about the conflict with the writer Meyer Levin, who developed such a proprietary feeling about Anne Frank's writings that he presented serious problems for Otto Frank and his friends.

The most interesting part of the account (to me) involved Tonny Ahlers, the man who probably betrayed the Frank family by letting the Gestapo know about their hiding place.  The author argues very persuasively that Ahlers was probably the betrayer, and in doing so provides a clear glimpse into the scurrilous activities of a snake of a man who profited by providing information to the Nazis.

7 August 2010

    GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)

This controversial early version (completed in 1957) of To Kill a Mockingbird gives us Scout (now usually Jean Louise) at the age of 26, returning from her home in New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her family there--her father (the lawyer Atticus Finch), his sister and brother (her uncle Jack). Her brother Jem (Jeremy) is now dead, and Hank (Henry Clinton), is now a lawyer and like a son to Atticus. Hank is determined to marry Jean Louise.

We get a view of life in a southern town in the 1950s, and Lee has captured its conversation and attitudes very competently. What she is trying to do here, though, is to use local color as a backdrop for the far more serious matter of the community's racism--viewed from Jean Louise's now-altered perspective.

Everything down home is fairly pleasant and straightforward-seeming until Jean Louise turns up at a "citizens' council" meeting where her father and Hank are in attendance, and, unbeknownst to them, she hears the speakers vehemently opposing integration and the Supreme Court.

It comes as a complete shock to Jean Louise to realize that those nearest and dearest to her are probably racists.

Even though she grew up in close proximity to these people, loving them, she must never have been aware of their views about race.

In setting up this situation Lee is flying in the face of all probability. I find it next to impossible to believe that a child growing up in a southern town in the 1940s-1950s would not have realized what her family's attitudes on race were, but that is by the way. For the purposes of the story, let's assume that this might have happened. Anything is possible.

Jean Louise's reaction is violent. She rages at Atticus and her Uncle Jack and Hank. She resolves to leave, without marrying Hank--whom she realizes she didn't really love anyway.

Unfortunately, Uncle Jack takes center stage at about this point, and his pontifications in defense of the traditional southern-white attitudes can be irritating in the extreme.  Lee seems to want older people in this novel to be sages. Even if their fundamental attitudes are bigoted and racist, their "wisdom" will redeem them to the point where the thoroughly repelled Jean Louise is ready to soften up.

This is where Lee performs some sleight-of-hand that strikes me as unfair trickery.  Having established Atticus and Hank at the citizens' council meeting that was clearly aimed at perpetuating racial segregation, she later makes it appear as if Atticus doesn't "really"--in his heart of hearts--favor racism. Instead, we are asked to believe that he is so wise in the southern mores that--unlike Jean Louise in her youthful naivete--he feels he must go along with them in order to--what?  Understand his fellow man better? Help to lead his fellow citizens out of their bigotry and into a less harmfully provincial and exclusionary way of thinking?  It isn't clear.

What is clear is that Lee hasn't quite made up her mind about how this story should play out. On the one hand, Jean Louise herself is firmly opposed to racism. But is she to reject her entire history, her family,  the man she was going to marry?  Seeds of doubt about Hank have been planted early on, to be sure, but just what does Jean Louise have waiting for her in New York if she returns there, probably forever?

A novel written by a woman about a woman in the 1950s perhaps could not have ended with Jean Marie's walking away from hearth and home forever, but she comes very close to doing just that. In fact, if you look at the story without the mushiness  provided by Uncle Jack's lengthy and muddy speeches, that is what she is doing.

By now her rage has subsided and she is armed with the understanding her psychologizing uncle has poured into her ear, complete with a reference to Browning's very darkly despairing poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

The idea of a quest,as in the "Childe Roland" poem, by Jean Louise--a quest for the truth about herself and her background, even though it threatens to overwhelm her in its horror--runs through the story, which would have been much better without quite so much of Uncle Jack. Jean Louise could have reached her understanding by other means.

However, it isn't really fair to criticize a book in an early draft, a first attempt at a novel by a writer who went on to write a much better book. Go Set a Watchman is  interesting  for what it isn't but it also shows the Mockingbird characters, still very much themselves but in a different time.

I don't find it unbelievable that an Atticus Finch who fiercely defends an African-American at one time might also be the same Atticus Finch who goes along with southern ideas of white supremacy. We just didn't see that side of him in Mockingbird.

It would be interesting to know if Go Set a Watchman has been edited at all since 1957. 

15 November 2015



The author, a journalist and professor of journalism at Northeastern University, has made a meticulous study of coverage of the Holocaust by the New York Times--and has come up with some disturbing conclusions. This book was reviewed negatively the New York Times in 2005, but I think that Leff raises some serious issues.

She has found that stories about the fate of European Jews under Hitler rarely reached the first page of the Times during World War II--and that when there were stories, they were worded so as to minimize descriptions of the effect of Nazi policies on the Jews, repeatedly making the situation sound as if European Christians, political adversaries of the Nazis, and other groups were being equally adversely affected, and ignoring the Nazis' repeated rantings about making Europe "Judenrein."

She offers several possible explanations for the de-emphasis of the Jewish plight--one being that the paper's owner, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a vehement opponent of Zionism and a strong believer in Judaism as a religion rather than a peoplehood. He quite probably thought that with these convictions he was helping to counteract Hitler's insistence on referring to the Jews as a race, but Leff shows that a very unfortunate effect of Sulzberger's convictions was that reports of the losses of Jewish rights, property, and life in Europe were treated almost as if they didn't matter much.

Sulzberger himself was often generous to relatives in Europe who were in danger of falling victim to the Nazis, but sometimes he refused help that he could easily have given. He could have used his influence as the head of the most widely read newspaper in the US in many ways and might even perhaps have put a stop to some of the Nazi atrocities, but--Leff implies--possibly because he was afraid that a Jewish-owned newspaper would be accused of being too "pro-Jewish," he leaned over backwards to avoid page-one stories that would have brought the horror home to far more readers.

It is easy to be smart in retrospect. Perhaps Sulzberger knew all too well the deep strain of anti-Semitism in American life at the time, and maybe he was right in downplaying the Nazi campaign against the Jews. For instance, I came across this, which appeared in Time magazine in 1930:
With her plump, black-eyed brood, Jewess after rich Jewess scuttled out of Germany last week, filling trains de luxe with wails and confusion. Mother-instinct knew the meaning of Jew-Baiter Adolf Hitler's election victory fortnight ago, when his Fascist 'Brown Shirts' leaped fearsomely from ninth to second place among German parties.

--From "Strap Helmets Tighter!" , Time, September 29, 1930.

Written some three years before Hitler came to power, this paragraph is laden with anti-Jewish sentiment and appeared in a very widely read newsmagazine. Any reader of Leff's book would do well to think about what Sulzberger may have been up against at the time.
30 August 2009

          BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE                 FRANKLIN (2013)


The Founding Fathers had wives, daughters, sisters, mistresses--about whom not much is usually known. This biographer of Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane has set herself the task of giving Jane Franklin Mecom her place in history, overshadowed though she will always be by her illustrious brother.

--Overshadowed perhaps because she was trapped in the customary woman's role of the time. Married in her mid-teens to a man who appears to have been a millstone round her neck, she gave him a dozen children, most of whom predeceased her. Not only did she raise the children--she went on to raise grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But unlike many women of her time, she was literate, and a few of her letters have been preserved. Lepore makes quite a point of the fact that her brother Ben didn't save her letters to him but she saved all his letters to her.

This seems to be a straightforward narrative based on extensive research. However, as history it lacks objectivity.  Lepore has an ax to grind, and she doesn't hesitate to grind it. She is determined to make the point that women of that time had a very hard row to hoe and were often expected to be almost invisible--willing servants to the men in their lives.

I wish she had let the facts speak for themselves and spared us the hectoring tone.

March 26, 2015


This book is a collection of articles about thirteen "celebrity" patients--some of whom were famous before they became ill, while others became celebrities on account of their illness. The author reflects on how the rise of "celebrity patients" affects the way medicine is practiced, remarking that one sure way to call attention to a disorder and possibly increase funding for it seems to be to have a celebrity associated with it. Whether this is always for the good is an open question....

So we have discussions of Lou Gehrig, whose name is now often attached to the disease that killed him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and another baseball great, Jim Pearsall. The author also focuses on Steve McQueen, John Foster Dulles, Arthur Ashe, and Barney Clark (the first artificial heart transplant patient).

Also included is the story of the Libby Zion case, which has been treated in more detail in The Girl Who Died Twice (1995) by Natalie Robins, which I read years ago. Libby Zion died unnecessarily and quite unexpectedly at the age of 18 at New York Hospital, and her father launched an energetic campaign to find out what really happened and to oppose the traditional hospital system of overworking residents and interns to the point where they become too dangerously fatigued to do a competent job--a situation where a hapless patient like Libby Zion all too often suffers.

For someone who hasn't seen the popular movie Lorenzo's Oil, the material about Lorenzo Odone is particularly interesting. Lorenzo's parents were so determined not to lose their son, who wasn't expected to get through his childhood once his adrenoleukodystrophy was diagnosed, that they bent every fiber to find a cure. The "oil" they discovered appears to have been of only limited usefulness for a very limited number of patients, but Lorenzo did survive until the age of 30. And his parents' efforts led to the establishment of the Myelin Project, which is still functioning, for the purpose of finding a cure for demyelinating disorders.

The author of this book is a doctor at Johns Hopkins University.

18 June 2009


        THE CLEFT (2007)

I may not have paid enough attention to what was happening in this novel, but it just didn't hold my attention.  I'm not a fan of fantasy novels. The Cleft is set in an imagined  world that is before Roman times and is narrated by a Roman.  We don't find out much more about any of the characters. They are featureless silhouettes presumably set against an eternal sky.

But the whole thing just doesn't seem to work. At least it didn't work for me.  The imagined world of the Clefts--prehistoric women creatures who have no use for men--wasn't something I wanted to know more about. I was curious about how they reproduced without men, but apparently they didn't. Or at one time they did but they lost that capacity. Or something.

6 February 2011
Kate Brown is a 45-year-old woman who has raised four children satisfactorily (with a highly successful husband in the background) and who finds herself suddenly without a real purpose in life. Fortunately she has extraordinary language skills and experience that catapult her into a fairly important job as a simultaneous translator.
It is after that job ends that her real troubles begin. She launches an affair with a considerably younger man whom she hardly knows, but it never gets off the ground because the young man falls seriously ill. The illness is never identified, and she leaves the young man to his illness after a while, presuming that he is now having good care. The young man and his fate are never again mentioned in the story.

This seems to me to be a serious flaw in a novel about a woman whose whole life has been devoted to caring for and about others, in the time-honored role of women. So far as we know, she never gives him another thought.
The story veers off in several directions without ever bringing them together: the translating job and the people involved there, the young man, and finally what happens when Kate returns--now ill herself--to England and temporarily shares a flat with a much younger woman, Maureen, who is clearly a daughter substitute.
Maureen is particularly hard to believe in. She is shown repeatedly to be flirtatious and flippant, and yet she seems to be genuinely interested in hearing every detail of Kate's past. Maureen has three boy friends on tap and is trying to decide which one to marry. Maureen and her boy friends enter the story at about the halfway point, and this late appearance may be part of the reason why I had trouble being very interested in her. Moreover, she doesn't really connect with Kate or Kate's family, about whom we already know quite a bit.
This is a well-told story of one woman's way of dealing with becoming an empty-nester, but the author tends to explain and  analyze too much. I wish she had paid closer attention to interweaving the several strands of the plot.
6 July 2009


The author reports on her four visits to Zimbabwe in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. She had moved to Southern Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe later) at the age of 5, in the 1920s, but became a political exile as a result of her opposition to the white supremacist government. In 1949 she moved to England, where she remained. But after 25 years in exile, she made several return visits, and this book is an account of what she found.
The pieces are informative and beautifully written, organized loosely around a "theme" of African laughter, seemingly. The author sees laughter as a characteristically African response to hardship. She clearly writes from an abiding love for this part of the world and its people.
This was a very absorbing book.
      4 March 2005

         UNDER MY SKIN (1994)

Interesting account of the author’s early life (volume 1 of her autobiography--going to about 1949). Her formative years in Southern Rhodesia, her participation in the Communist Party, her two marriages and three children are described.

26 March 2001


The liberal English writer Doris Lessing describes some exceptionally interesting times in her life.

27 February 2001



December 1996


The author is known for his Holocaust memoirs. These gems of fiction did not appear until twenty years after his death.

As in The Drowned and the Saved and The Periodic Table, Primo Levi seems first and foremost a chemist. The stories in A Tranquil Star often involve chemical facts.

They tend to be brief fanciful tales, sometimes pointing to a gentle moral but usually just delightfully diverting in the fantastic world the author conjures up.

12 November 2012

The author, a neuroscientist, warns against approaching scientific "evidence" as often presented through the media with too much trust and gives some examples of the ways in which what looks objective and scientific is clothed in deceptive terminology and statistics that aren't really persuasive.  If you haven't learned that correlation doesn't imply causation, you will learn it here.

December 7, 2017


Using examples such as the dogwood and sugar maple, the author pleads for more efforts to save U.S. trees, which are gravely endangered by the effects of air pollution.

29 June 1998


     THE PHOTOGRAPH (2003)

Warning: Contains spoilers.

There is a mystery implicit in this novel. It isn't put as a question anywhere in the story, and this seems a bit unfair to the reader. We find out immediately that one person important to everyone in the story has died a few years ago, but we're never told what she died of. It's as if it isn't relevant. But for a younger person such as Kath in the story, it of course will be relevant.

Towards the end of the story it comes out, but by then the reader has probably guessed that her death was a suicide. Fragments of her conversations keep drifting back to haunt the others--her husband, her sister and brother-in-law.

Once this fact--of her suicide--is finally on the table, we're still wondering why this strikingly attractive and appealing woman would kill herself.

It is never explained, but we can put together a life of aimlessness, of semi-obligatory fun-loving cheerfulness, of searching for love and not finding it and draw our own conclusions.

Towards the end, the author gives us some sessions with Kath's best friend, who hasn't figured in the story at all up till then, and who turns out to have known Kath far better than anyone else on the scene.

In fact, she is almost obnoxious as she dishes out fact after hitherto unknown fact about Kath to the inquiring family members who approach her. Kath, who was childless, had suffered two miscarriages--all unbeknownst to anyone but the best friend, for instance.

The plot is set in motion when Kath's husband Glyn happens across a photograph showing Kath and another man holding hands among a group of people. Glyn learns that the man is Nick, Kath's sister's husband, and becomes obsessed with tracking down details of Kath's past as his fear that his wife was unfaithful while he was engrossed in his career overcomes him.

The "lesson" here is that he never took the time to get to know his wife well. And that even her sister was so busy overshadowing her that she never knew her well either. That the affair with Nick was probably very brief just makes Kath's tragedy all the sadder.

The story resembles The Great Gatsby in some ways. Kath is built up, writ large--the astonishingly attractive woman who doesn't even seem to realize how beguiling she is. But what we see of her is glimpses. Because she is dead, she will remain mysterious, having left behind shreds of herself as preserved in the memories of the others.

But do we need an authorial voice telling us that those others are paying tribute to Kath by discussing her as they are doing in this book? At times Penelope Lively gets too analytical with her characters, and they  could use more fleshing out. They are a well-off bunch, intellectualizing their way through life because they have the time and the temperament to be cool and politely distant about everything they do.

One wishes that they could have been more likable....

2 February 2010

     MAKING IT UP  (2005)

A fascinating collection of stories where the author has imagined situations that might have developed if her life had taken a different course at one point or another.

Each story has a unique setting, and perhaps the most interesting one is "The Temple of Mithras," about an archeological dig.  The author is clearly knowledgeable in a number of areas, but she doesn't use her fiction as a vehicle for showing off.  Instead, she explores the human interactions perceptively and in depth.

21 November 2010

     SPIDERWEB (1998)

A novel about Stella,  a 65-year-old woman anthropologist who is settling down in a small English village after many years in the field, Spiderweb catches the reader up in its network of connections among its characters. The spiderweb is meant to refer to the many paths Stella's life has taken over the years, to the ways in which they might intersect, but it might as well refer to the structure of the novel itself.

Usually it proceeds as a straightforward narrative, interwoven with some flashback scenes. But sometimes we are given snippets of phone conversations, letters, newspaper advertisements and articles, and these too contribute to our understanding of the story.

There are only about a dozen characters on the scene, and the author casts a magnifying glass over some of them so that we can get a good look at them. Most telling are the sections focusing on the  family of two teenage boys and their parents Karen and Ted Hiscox, Stella's neighbors.

Karen Hiscox is a clearly depicted "toxic mom"--one who is giving her children a world where nothing is true, nothing makes sense, a world over which she tyrannizes by means of her ability to shout other people down until they give up. She succeeds with a terrifying consistency with her husband and two sons, ages 14 and 15.  It isn't surprising but it is  chilling when the boys turn out to be full of meanness and hatred--and take it out on Stella's dog, for no reason other than the handiness of the family's gun and their own seething rage.

Since this is an anthropologist's story, with many reflections about what anthropology is, maybe it's not surprising if the reader keeps hoping that the community will intervene to prevent more catastrophes as a result of the sick family situation presided over by Karen Hiscox.

The community does not. Another catastrophe occurs, and at the end of the novel it looks as if the Hiscox family will be able to go right on being the flaming tinderbox we've already witnessed.

A remarkable book that says something important about the way families can be in our society--with the society turning a blind eye. It isn't a preachy book by any means. It just shows some situations as they probably all too often are.

9 January 2011


This book is a meditation on the author's grandmother's house, constructed around a few memorable objects she associates with the house, Golsoncott in the English countryside, where she spent her childhood.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this work could have been a negligible bit of nostalgia. But Penelope Lively brings perspective and insight to bear as she contemplates the significance of items like napkin rings or a sideboard.

Her family once had numerous servants in the household, for instance, and she reflects on the softening of class lines in British society over the last century.  Just how rigid these lines could be is illustrated in her observation that the English prefer processions while Americans like parades. In the UK, people are more comfortable, seemingly, when the old hierarchies are preserved than in the US.

A very remarkable and graceful book--with special attention to gardening.

31 October 2012


Here Penelope Lively is facing aging head on, not sugar-coating it  but including all of its sadness and sense of loss. With humor and grace she glides over the harsh fact that the old are all too often ignored, discounted as having nothing to contribute, nothing to say worth hearing.

She goes on to speak her piece, and every sentence of this book is worth a careful reading.

Not a memoir in any strict chronological sense, this book is more of an impressionistic survey of her life so far, which has been filled with diversity. In the last chapter, "Six Things," she tells about six items that are still of importance to her, including a couple of ammonites--fossilized prehistoric snail-like creatures--a collection of embroidered samplers, and potholders with a duck design that are an example of American folk art. The duck potholders lead her into a brief discussion of her fascination with bird-watching.

31 January 2016


The author was born in 1935, and so apparently was the protagonist of this novel, which is autobiographical in many details.

Shaped for all time by the blitz that affected him in several important ways, the young man at the center of this story struggles to find out why his older sister seems to have alienated herself from the family by staying remotely in Heidelberg.

3 October 2009



The author telling his own story is capable of self-deprecatory humor, as in his account of his discovery about a common knee problem and his venture into the world of publication in a medical journal.

8 February 1999



Ever since reading and liking Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death, I've wondered how she and her sisters--two of whom were known for being Nazi sympathizers--could have come from the same family. This biography doesn't answer that question, and there may be no answer. But it does reveal how they got along--or didn't get along--with one another throughout their lives.

Jessica was always rebellious, and ultimately joined the Communist Party, to the consternation of her high-born English relatives. She eventually left the CP, but she finely honed her skills as a muckraking journalist and became both prosperous and respected as a writer.

Diana and Unity were the most vocal enthusiasts for Nazism in the family, though brother Tom and father David also were sympathetic to Hitler's government, at least at first. Unity appears to have had a frank crush on Hitler--and was able to act on her feelings by frequenting Hitler's favorite hangouts often enough to be noticed, and she became his very much favored friend, though not his lover, by all accounts.

Reading this book, with its references to the Mitford family relationship to the Churchills, one suspects that Hitler was exploiting Unity and her crush. He was surely far too shrewd to have allowed himself to be bowled over by an English debutante, no matter how young and beautiful she was. By being sociable toward Unity, he may have been on the lookout for any news of Winston Churchill or British war strategy.

Unity shot herself, as she had said she would, when living in Germany began to be less attractive once England and Germany were at war. She botched the job, though, and was left with severe brain damage for the rest of her days. The Mitfords rallied round and took care of her in her final years.

This biography seems to be a balanced and thoroughgoing study of this group of six sisters.

24 November 2008



The author, a family practice doctor in Belfast, Maine,  decided to keep a journal for a year, and we learn about some of his patients, about his background, about his interests--his Roman Catholic faith, his wife and daughter, brewing his own beer, running.

It is an interesting and well written journal. But if you're not a Roman Catholic, and especially if you're not a Thomas Merton enthusiast (I'm neither), you might not find this book to be your cup of tea. By a rough estimate, about one-third of this book is given over to discussion of the Church and Thomas Merton.

There was something pretentious and annoying about the way in which Loxtercamp insists on his piety in this journal. But maybe I just don't have the proper outlook on the practice of medicine.

30 October 2007


This is a novel of academia, set at the fictional Corinth University and involving two childless couples. Jane Mackenzie is getting desperate as the wife of Alan because for well over a year Alan has been incapacitated due to a back injury and is depending on her for entirely too much--while hating every minute of his dependency.

Much is said about his pain. We are reminded of it at every turn. We are even told that physical therapy has been part of the picture. 

A new couple emerges on the scene--Henry Hull and his presumed wife Delia Delaney, who is one of the fellows attached to the humanities center that Jane manages. The author can't quite decide if she shares Jane's view of Delia through most of the novel--that Delia is an overindulged prima donna with absolutely no consideration for others and an alarmingly oversized ego--or a more sympathetic take on her that comes to Jane later on: that Delia is somewhat pathetic and starting to show her age.

The reader is left therefore with two conflicting views of Delia unresolved. The story is interesting in a way but predictable. We can see that Jane and Henry are going to try to pair off once it becomes known that Delia has cast her spell on Alan.

27 September 2009


Without having read much of James Merrill's poetry, I won't comment except to say that Lurie's perceptive observations on her two friends in this memoir are very much needed if the reader is to understand them. James Merrill was far and away the more successful of the couple, and it was perhaps his success that led to the decay of the relationship between him and David Jackson.

This is a sad story, and the two men's long-lasting fascination with the ouija board is especially hard to fathom--and sad.

24 March 2004


The author, a poet and an undertaker, gives his perspective on undertaking. I often disagreed with him but the book is revelatory. I still have problems with the whole practice of embalming and entombment of the dead. Of course Lynch does not share my opinion that there is something grisly and morbid about this cultural phenomenon, and these essays do not persuade me to feel less squeamish.

Death is too catastrophic an event to be wallowed in as the funeral-home industry would like us to wallow in it: with "viewings" and "visitations,"expensive caskets with satin lining or what-have-you, and all of the other grief-industry products that are imposed on the bereaved at the very time when they are most vulnerable.

I can't share in the general applause Lynch's book has received.

7 July 2004


This account of the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man named Adam Lanza  killed his own mother, a couple of school staff members, and scores of elementary school children, could have been better organized and written.

We don't find out much about Nancy Lanza, Adam's mother, but at least we learn some details about the way in which she regularly supplied her son, who was known to have been severely troubled for many years, with firearms--Adam being too young to buy them in Connecticut, Mom obligingly bought them for him.

Then there is the matter of whether Nancy Lanza had multiple sclerosis, and if so, in what way she was affected by it. We find out very little in this book. Her grandfather had MS, and her symptoms were noted in the late 1990s. At 52, we are told, she was diagnosed with "an incurable autoimmune disease," but Nancy believed she had MS.

That is the sum total of what we learn, even though she played a large part in Adam's behavior.

This was a young man who had gradually begun living in a world of his own, centered around video games and violent imagery, someone so troubled that his mother had been trying desperately to find help for him for years.

If this is true, it is a sad commentary on the state of the US mental health services. This was a very prosperous family who could easily have afforded the best psychiatric care.

Instead of delving into this situation, though, the author goes into detail about the victims. It is a very moving and chilling account.

The book's preface was written by the monsignor who conducted the funerals for nine of the victims.

This book may have been meant primarily as a tribute to those victims rather than as a piece of investigative journalism.

12 October 2014

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