29 June 2005

M

MAC DONALD, BETTY

   THE PLAGUE AND I (1948)


This is an account of the author's stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Seattle in the 1930s. It is highly informative and surprisingly amusing. The author is best-known for The Egg and I, which became a popular movie.

3 May 1998
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MADDOW, RACHEL
     
    DRIFT:  THE UNMOORING OF AMERICAN MILITARY                 POWER (2012)

This short but well constructed book makes a very persuasive case for putting far less emphasis on the military in the US today.  Maddow argues that going to war has become much too easy, and people are not only suffering from the consequences of this extreme militarization  but are also being endangered by the reckless inattention to human life exemplified in our slipshod handling of nuclear weapons.

She cites instance after horrifying instance of poorly conceived decisions and policies over the last 50 years.  

There was the time when six nuclear warheads were flown 1400 miles across the US, and no one knew their whereabouts for over 36 hours:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/12/us-usa-military-nuclear-idUSN1255936420080212

She comments on the material she has unearthed with biting humor. There is no doubt about where she stands on these issues.

She is alert to the problems that arise when the populace is less literate than it should be, too:


Others told investigators, without a hint of shame, that they weren't sure that verifying meant "like, actually physically checking something."
However, although there is an extensive list of sources at the end of the book, there are no footnotes or other indications of the exact sources for each person quoted or incident mentioned.  Although the lack of precise references makes for a much more readable book, in a work on a topic as controversial as the US military, I believe that Maddow could have enhanced her credibility greatly if she had included them.

2 November 2013
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MALCOLM, JANET

 IN THE FREUD ARCHIVES (1984)


This short book originally ran as a long essay in the New Yorker.

It is an interesting account of a battle over the letters of the late Sigmund Freud. It revolves around the entry on the psychoanalytic scene of one Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, an apparently brilliant Sanskrit scholar who decided to concern himself with Freud's papers--and to become a psychoanalyst, although he failed to win acceptance in the tight community of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists. 

In fact, he went too far in some of his claims and theories. Although he was to have had full custody of the Freud archives on the death of Anna Freud, he suffered an abrupt fall from grace when some of his theories cast Freud in an unfavorable light.

The theories, supported by considerable evidence, were not so very damning, or at least that is how Malcolm tells the story.  Masson's arrogance and abrasiveness must have made him a difficult person to deal with. He has abandoned his work in psychoanalysis since the events narrated here.

The author takes a nonjudgmental approach to her topic. She is by no means squarely in Masson's corner. The result is an account that shows the limitations of the field of psychoanalysis and of its practitioners.

11 October 2011
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MANNING, OLIVIA
Manning as a young woman. She looks into the camera with a serious expression. Short, wavy hair is topped by a hat with veiling.
      THE BALKAN TRILOGY (Part I of THE FORTUNES OF                WAR):  THE GREAT FORTUNE (1960), THE SPOILT                  CITY (1962), FRIENDS AND HEROES (1965)


I fail to understand why Olivia Manning isn't better known. I've read The Balkan Trilogy and its successor, The Levant Trilogy, years ago and am rereading them now. Manning is a careful, sensitive writer who grounds her story firmly in its political and geographical setting and who delineates her characters in often amusing detail.

The story she tells seems to be largely autobiographical: Harriet Pringle is a young British woman recently married to Guy, who is sent to teach English in Bucharest just as Hitler's armies are on the march through Europe.

The young couple soon acquires a circle of friends and acquaintances, particularly since Guy is almost too gregarious.  Bucharest has its share of royalty who are down on their luck--among them the gourmand Prince Yakimov.  In her presentation of Yakimov the author shows her skill--casting a deeply flawed person in a light that inspires compassion in the Pringles and, undoubtedly, in the readers.

The characters are clearly aware of the existence of concentration camps and of the dangers faced by Bucharest's Jews.  The Pringles conceal a young Jewish man, Sasha, but eventually have to realize that he will never believe that they didn't betray him.

If the trilogy has a weakness, it may be in the relationship between Harriet and Charles Warden, an English officer temporarily stationed in Greece. Up until the appearance of Charles, Harriet has been a level-headed person, but her attraction to Charles and her insistence on continuing the friendship even though Charles is clearly trifling with her and being unpleasantly impatient about his pursuit of her is not adequately explained.  It is hard to believe that Harriet would be dazzled by his military status.

The novel has an array of self-seeking characters whose shortcomings come to light as time goes by, and Manning seems to be smiling wryly in the background as their cowardice and duplicitous natures are exposed.

January 2, 2012

  THE BATTLE LOST AND WON (Part 2 of THE LEVANT                TRILOGY) (1978)

On a second reading many years later, I'm still  impressed by the author's achievement in the six-volume set known as The Fortunes of War. In this second part of The Levant Trilogy, Harriet Pringle is becoming increasingly disillusioned with Guy, but this personal story is set against a backdrop of the near-chaos of Cairo at the time when war is being waged.

Olivia Manning shows an amazing command of a wide variety of scenes, including the most intensely action-laden battle scenes, of which she probably had only limited personal experience.

Towards the end of this volume Harriet--debilitated from amoebic dysentery--is about to sail back to England and get a job.  The Fortunes of War may not please readers who believe that women shouldn't just attach themselves to men and be willing to supported by them even when a couple is childless, for that is what Harriet Pringle has been doing, without considering whether her choice is fair to herself or to Guy.

Women of later generations may fault her for this, but as the story unfolds, the extent of Harriet's quietly compassionate nature becomes more and more evident in unobtrusive ways, and eventually, if we think about it at all, we would have to say that the still-childless woman who is content to be "just" a companion and helper to her husband has her functions, her place in the world, just as surely as a woman with a salaried job.

To be sure, the man with such a wife is lucky indeed, and few women could expect to have such helpful husbands even if the women could support them. But that is another matter.

The novel is laced with irony, as when the pretentious literary scholar Lord Pinkrose is assassinated because some gunman confused him with a Lord Pinkerton who had a certain diplomatic importance.

The ironies of the situation are never lost on Harriet, whose keen powers of observation can be depended on throughout.

27 February 2012

     THE DANGER TREE (Part 1 of THE LEVANT TRILOGY)                (1977)

Many of the characters we met in The Balkan Trilogy turn up in this novel, now transported to Egypt, with the war still buffeting them about.

Simon Boulderstone is introduced, a young officer who is trying to find his brother Hugo, also in the military. Simon is enamored of one Edwina Little, a party-loving young woman who shares a flat with Guy and Harriet as well as others.  Edwina Little, however, is under the spell of an Anglo-Irish lieutenant colonel. Meanwhile, Harriet is becoming increasingly irritated at Guy's overly expansive gregariousness, and the novel ends with some loose ends dangling. Was Guy actually flirting with Edwina, as Harriet seems to have witnessed? Or was he just consoling a young woman in considerable distress?

The book contains far more than this brief sketch of some of its plot elements.  Battle scenes are described in realistic detail, and through Manning's skilful writing, the reader can experience the desert heat as well as the horror of the ongoing war.

7 February 2012

   THE SUM OF THINGS (1980)

This part of the trilogy may have been written at the end of the author's life.  By now Harriet and Guy have more or less separated, but at the book's end they have been reunited, after Harriet has struggled by herself in Syria and Lebanon, buoyed sometimes by her friendship with Angela but often coming up against considerable difficulties in surviving on her own, as an unattached woman seeking work in a foreign country during wartime.

This rather short novel is unfortunately the weakest of the six novels that make up The Fortunes of War, in my opinion. Harriet agrees to board a ship bound for England, at Guy's urging, but at the last minute she decides not to get on the ship and goes to Damascus instead. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the ship goes under and most passengers are lost. Guy, hearing of this, assumes that she is among the dead since her name shows up on the list of passengers.  His grief over losing her is evidence, if evidence were needed, that he cares deeply about her in spite of an overly gregarious nature that has often made their marriage a lonely one for Harriet.

The story is absorbing and affecting, as were all of the other novels in this very impressive trilogy.

19 April 2012
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MARTIN, JUDITH




MISS MANNERS' BASIC TRAINING: THE RIGHT THING TO SAY (1998)


I always enjoy Miss Manners, who delivers her etiquette recommendations with a lot of humor. This short work  is full of useful advice.

I disagreed with her on only one point. She is somewhat in favor of the person who wants to make a friend over, but I find any attempt at "makeovers" offensive and intrusive, as well as presumptuous and arrogant on the part of the person who wants to do the makeover. Only if a person earnestly requests a friend for advice on appearance, style, or whatever, should the friend venture some (very cautious) remarks. But that's just my opinion...

8 August 2007
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MAUGHAM, W. SOMERSET

      OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1915)


Philip Carey's childhood and early adulthood are the subject of this semiautobiographical novel, and in a sense it is a Bildungsroman, though some might say that the problem of Philip's human bondage that is--loosely speaking--the theme is never very satisfactorily resolved.

Philip goes from a tormented childhood struggling with having been born with a clubfoot, then losing both parents and being put in the hands of a cruel uncle who is a vicar, to a young adulthood as an art student in Paris so desperate for friendship that he ends up in thrall to a woman who is clearly taking advantage of him--and who treats him cruelly time and time again.

A psychologist would probably call Philip a classic masochist but the novel is not a psychological study in any modern sense. Philip is a young man trying to find his way in a world that often treats him shabbily, even brutally.

The reader rejoices when at last things start looking up for him. After a long period of near-starvation poverty, he finds a family who befriend him, and he finishes his medical studies and finally enjoys being rewarded for his efforts. 

That he is "over" Mildred has been made clear earlier in one simple sentence remarking that he never saw her again. But, happy though we are that he finds Sally, the woman he marries at the end, how credible is it that he would have had to marry her because he is responsible for her unwanted pregnancy? With his medical training, including considerable experience in midwifery, are we supposed to believe that he could have been so stupid as he calls himself on finding out that a mistake has been made?

Be that as it may, and maybe Philip will never learn that he isn't the actual father of the child, the book ends on an upbeat note, and we feel that Philip richly deserves the happiness he has worked heartbreakingly hard for.

I first read this book many years ago when I was in my teens. On rereading, I'm struck by how much it tells us about the mores of turn-of-the-century England, especially how the working class lived. And it is a far better book than I remembered it to be.

24 August 2016
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MAYNARD, JOYCE

AT HOME IN THE WORLD: A MEMOIR (1998)


Maynard's autobiographical memoir with a focus on her association with J.D. Salinger - in his 50s when she was 18 - including very specific physiological details about Maynard's sexual relationships, childbirth experiences, and abortion.

This book strikes me as being in the worst possible taste. Can one blame the reclusive J.D. Salinger for being furious at her?

16 November 2001


WHERE LOVE GOES (1995)

This is some more drivel by the writer who "told all" about her affair with the writer J.D. Salinger. This book, a novel about divorced single parents, makes no mention of Salinger, however.

3 January 2000
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MC CARTHY, MATT

       THE REAL DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW: A PHYSICIAN'S FIRST YEAR (2015)


A doctor in training tells about his year of internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.  During that stressful year, involving 30-hour work days and a need to act very fast while using excellent judgment in life-and-death situations, he made many mistakes, including accidentally jabbing himself with a needle that had just been used to draw blood from an AIDS patient. 

He describes the emotional meltdown he suffered during the month of needing to take several very unpleasant medicines and waiting to learn whether he had indeed been infected with the HIV virus. (He had not.)  

A day spent on a retreat in the Palisades, where he was encouraged to discuss his concerns with other doctors, may have helped him to regain the calm demeanor he needed to be able to continue his work as a doctor.

There are other books describing phases in the training or later experience of doctors, and unfortunately some of them, including this one at times, seem more of a compilation of horror stories.  However, since an intern's life may indeed be a collection of horrors, either witnessed or participated in,  it could be argued that the reader is getting the real picture here--from the standpoint of the human being who is splattered with blood, who has to do CPR to the point where he is exhausted (and still might lose the patient), who has to endure odors and sights that are sickening. These are the people who are paid (rather well) for doing what they do. One reason we may be willing to pay such a high price may be our keen awareness that theirs is no easy job. And Dr. McCarthy has added to that awareness with his account.

9 April 2016

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MC DONALD, BRIAN
     
   IN THE  MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT :  THE SHOCKING TRUE          STORY OF A FAMILY KILLED IN COLD BLOOD (2009)

This is a rather poorly written account of an actual case--the 2007 murder of a woman and her two daughters in their Connecticut home. The father, a doctor, was brutally beaten but survived.

The book's subtitle should alert the reader that this is going be a sensational tale, and perhaps the words "in cold blood" are meant to remind us of Truman Capote's book by that title, for it was also about a family that was murdered by strangers for no apparent reason.

One problem here is that the fate of the two murderers, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hays, had not yet been determined at the time of the book's publication.

Another problem is the author's heavy reliance on Komisarjevsky's own writings, including a diary. After having demonstrated that this is one very troubled man with a long, long criminal record, does the author believe that Komisarjevsky has something to say that is worthy of the audience's attention?  It looks as if, for want of much to say about the victims (the Petit family), he has padded his book out with quotations from Joshua.

However, a point is being made here--that the ineptitude of the US criminal justice system needs correction. McDonald stresses repeatedly that neither Hays nor Komisarjevsky should have been released from prison when they were, and that if they hadn't been released, very probably Jennifer Petit and the two daughters would still be alive.

4 May 2014
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MC DONALD, EILEEN

     BREAKDOWN: SEX, SUICIDE AND THE HARVARD                    PSYCHIATRIST (1994)

In 1991 a Harvard University medical student's suicide attracted nationwide media attention when it was revealed that the young man had been involved in an unconventional type of psychotherapy with a Harvard-trained woman psychiatrist, who had caused him to "regress" to his childhood by insisting that she was his mother.

This sad case, which was settled out of court when the psychiatrist, Dr. Margaret Bean-Bayog, paid $1 million to the young man's family, the Lozanos. She gave up her medical license as well.

 Paul Lozano and his family were probably telling the truth about Dr. Bean-Bayog and her unconventional therapy. There has been too much evidence for the story to be false: flashcards used by the psychiatrist, gifts (books for toddlers, a teddy bear, etc.) she gave  him, for instance.

Her office notes on her sessions (often four a week) with Paul Lozano corroborate his account that she was convinced that Paul had been abused by his own mother in childhood even though there is little evidence of any abuse except for an occasional spanking and possibly the use of a belt. On the other hand, by his own admission, Paul made things up in his conversations with her--perhaps just to have something to talk about, to become a more interesting case for her.

Paul's Mexican-American mother had several other children and was especially proud of Paul's achievements. He had been an outstanding athlete, had gone to West Point and then to Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Bean-Bayog was from an elite family with professional and academic ties going back at least to her parents' generation. When she came under attack for her unconventional and exploitative therapeutic methods, many of her colleagues and friends supported her in spite of the tragic outcome her patient suffered.

Dr. Bean-Bayog had been seeing this patient on credit. At one point he paid a large sum towards her bill, but the total owed was considerably higher than the amount he had paid. She notified him that she could no longer see him unless he paid, but this notice was given after four years of a very intense therapeutic relationship--and her termination of the connection is said to have contributed to the depression that drove him to kill himself.

Just how intense the relationship was may always be open to question. Paul claimed that it had become a sexual relationship, using her private notes--lengthy passages of sadomasochistic pornography involving Dr. Bean-Bayog and Paul--as supporting evidence. However, the psychiatrist maintained that he broke into her house and stole the papers from her private files and that he had never seen them before.

This book looks like a piece of responsible reporting. It favors Paul Lozano's side of the dispute but does not do so in a shrill way. It is thoroughly documented, and the author freely admits that all of the facts will never be known.

How can they be, in a one-to-one association such as psychotherapy? The book raises troubling questions about the uses of psychiatry and the power psychiatrists have. A patient turning to a therapist for help is often desperate and vulnerable. The psychiatrist is respected and even revered. If the psychiatrist is persuaded that the patient needs to work on recovering "repressed memories" of abuse in childhood, the chances are that the patient will somehow recover at least a few repressed memories. Or reasonable facsimiles thereof....

It has been shown repeatedly that the human memory is faulty, maybe far faultier than most of us realize. Relying on "repressed memories" has been shown to be dangerous, and yet such reliance has resulted in court convictions.

Dr. Bean-Bayog supposedly helped Paul Lozano to dredge up repressed memories of physical and sexual abuse by his mother. Other members of the family considered these "memories" absurd, but her belief in them may have served to depress Paul's state of mind even further.

The author of this book should be commended for calling attention to the glaring problems involved in psychiatry as it is currently practiced in the United States.

14 May 2009
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MC DONALD, JANET
      
     PROJECT GIRL (1999)

The author of this remarkable memoir spent the better part of her adult life living in Paris. The account takes her life up to the point when she decides to move there.  (The author died in 2007 at the age of 53.)

She was one of a family of seven children born to an African-American couple who believed in having strong family ties, even though they were living in a housing project in Brooklyn.  At the time the project's occupants were chiefly the working poor. Later these people would be supplanted by the welfare-dependent poor, who--McDonald makes clear--tended to be more troubled people, more inclined to be involved in drugs and crime.

Some of Janet McDonald's sisters and brothers got trapped in the drug scene at an early age. Janet herself discloses that she took heroin--though the extent of her use of it isn't made clear.

Through prodigious efforts and her own inherently high intelligence, she enrolled in Vassar College and eventually went to law school at NYU.  During her student days, however, she was raped--and the case against her assailant dragged on for decades and poisoned her life.  She was also arrested and jailed for arson--for setting a series of fires in her dormitory.

She gives explicit details about her family life and her student life and even her experiences in therapy.  She clearly expresses her rage at white people and at anyone who treats her with condescension or a wish to play oneupmanship games.

Details about the rape are missing, however. Ordinarily I would be glad that they weren't included. Reading details about another person's suffering is always difficult, and the intimate details that would be included in a description of a rape are even more difficult. Perhaps it was out of an understandable desire for privacy that she omitted this information. Perhaps it was because  her book seems aimed at a young adult audience.

There is one thing wrong with this picture. She brings up the rape and her feelings about the rapist repeatedly throughout the book as the case continues. The incident is clearly a major event in her life. And yet, in describing the court case, she tells us only that the other side maintained that this was merely a case of consensual sex between a couple of law students. She makes no attempt at disproving this claim.

We are told that when she'd first moved into a nearly-empty dorm as a law student, another law student knocked on her door and invited her out. When she declined, he said, "Do you realize you're going to get raped tonight?" And then he raped her. That is all we find out.

We need to know if she invited him in to her room and if so, why. We are told that he threatened to kill her, but this information is tucked into a much later mention of the incident. So he raped her by using force and while threatening to kill her.

I'd be willing to take her word for it except for one thing. She continued to make a big issue of the incident--and went on doing so for decades. I'd like to know a little more about why this was considered a case of rape.

It seems to me that he might have sweet-talked her into cooperating to some extent and turned on the force only at the end--in which case it isn't exactly rape, not in the usual sense.

Or is it?  The author became a lawyer but although her specialty wasn't criminal law, I think she owed it to the reader to go into this gray area.

She is clear-eyed about herself and her faults, in general. She is not a self-pitying whiner by any means. However, she doesn't make it clear what prompted her to commit acts of arson, either, or how she went about setting the fires. 

This is a very interesting book, full of insight. I just wish it had been more forthcoming on a couple of issues.

25 January 2011

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MEHTA, VED


   DADDYJI (1972)

A portrait of the blind author's father, a medical doctor who served on committees involved in preventing tuberculosis--as well as fathering eight children.

    FACE TO FACE (1957)

This is a continuation of Ved Mehta's autobiography.


     MAMAJI (1979)


Like the other autobiographical works by Ved Mehta that I have read, this one portrays an exceptionally loving and close-knit family struggling against the many difficulties of living in India around the time of the 1948 partition. Even sufficient income and being part of a respected caste did not protect this family from falling victim to tragic circumstances--and sometimes to the double-dealing of other people.

Ved was the fifth of the eight children born to Mamaji (Shanti Devi) and Daddyji, who was an "England-returned" doctor. They lived primarily in Lahore--and in summer quarters in Simla--until Partition. This book covers the years from about 1880 to shortly after 1937, the year when the three-year-old Ved contracted meningitis and was left blind.

The author never boasts of his achievements, but they have been considerable. That Ved at 15 traveled to the United States to go to a school for the blind in Arkansas, the only school among dozens he applied to that accepted him, and that eventually he went to Pomona College, where he was such an outstanding student that he won a fellowship to Oxford--and later became a staff writer for the New Yorker, are facts we know only if we've read some of Ved Mehta's other works. 

Together they form an awe-inspiring tribute to Ved Mehta's exceptional family.

10 March 2009

SOUND-SHADOWS OF THE NEW WORLD (1986)

This is Ved Mehta's account of his years at the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, where he spent his adolescence and enlarged his experience considerably.


     UP AT OXFORD (1993)

Ved Mehta's years at Oxford are explored here, and he freely admits to feeling inadequate in comparison with his fellow students, who seem to have impressive achievements. Socially and culturally, he is obliged to adapt and even to emulate the British. As this has been the fate of many an Indian confronted with the British Raj or with the vestiges of it, his account will probably be a familiar story to many an upper-class Indian. It is told with exceptional sensitivity and attention to detail.

     VEDI ( 1982)

When Ved was five years old, his father sent him to the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay, 1300 miles away from home, and he spent four years there among other blind children, learning to get along on his own--and to read Braille English.

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MEIER, BARRY

     PAIN KILLER: A "WONDER" DRUG'S TRAIL OF                           ADDICTION AND DEATH (2003)

A New York Times reporter tells the story of OxyContin, a powerful prescription pain-killer (Oxycodone HCL, an opioid) from the Purdue pharmaceutical company.  It can be crushed and inhaled or injected.

It is an informative account, shedding light on how such a drug is marketed and emphasizing the extent to which Purdue went to promote sales of OxyContin, without questioning the data clearly indicating that the drug was being freely prescribed by doctors operating so-called "pill mills": for the price of an office visit, the doctor will prescribe whatever drug the patient asks for.

The author acknowledges that this strong narcotic has definite uses for persons suffering from intractable pain, but he argues that there are other less dangerous drugs on the market. OxyContin has had an appalling track record.

Recently the author reported more details about OxyContin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/business/fda-bars-generic-oxycontin.html?ref=barrymeier&_r=0

27 April 2013
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MELVILLE, HERMAN




BENITO CERENO (1855)


It's been many years since I read this novella, and I came to it knowing that I'd be up against the problems of race that it involves.

Does Benito Cereno, with its collection of very evil black men, show that Melville was a racist?

Writing in 1855, he would not have been framing such a question about himself, of course.  There was a general fear of people whose skin was a different color, especially since they brought a different culture along with that different color. It would take many years of struggle before some white people moved forward from fear to the desire to understand human beings who were different from themselves.

And the racism expressed in this story is the racism of the characters, not necessarily shared by the author, who is not present in it as a voice.

Once the question of racism can be set aside as irrelevant, we have a story of ambiguity and more ambiguity--a besetting problem that plagued Melville, who gave his novel Pierre the subtitle The Ambiguities, and whose Captain Ahab wrestles with ambiguity as well.

Captain Amasa Delano, who is a good and trusting man, is confronted with a peculiar situation on board a ship he encounters during a voyage--a situation where what he sees is one thing, a very benign scenario with the captain of the vessel being helped by some of the black slaves on board. But he finds good reasons to doubt what he sees and hears. Eventually the whole horror of it is gradually revealed--peeled off for us in layers.

Benito Cereno is a beautifully constructed tale that raises questions about whether we can ever truly know what reality is. Unfortunately it may never have many appreciative readers.

There is a positive side to this: there probably won't be many film versions of this story.

1 February 2013
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MILFORD, NANCY


  SAVAGE BEAUTY: THE LIFE OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY (2001)


This seems to be an even-handed study of this poet's life. There are a couple of maddeningly obscure passages, and at least one place where the biographer lets her own biases intrude unnecessarily.

Also, the book ends abruptly when "Vincent" falls down a flight of stairs to her death. I'd have welcomed details about the aftermath: Was the literary world in general grieved by the news of her death? Or indifferent? After all, she was a friend of Edmund Wilson's and numerous other literary eminences. Was there no memorial service? Were there no tributes to her? What was said?

More analysis of her poems might have been helpful, too. But this author skirts around the issue of whether Millay was a "great" poet or just a very good poet. Clearly she regards her subject as a "good-enough" poet (good enough to merit a lengthy biography), but what she has established in this book is that Edna St. Vincent Millay and at least one of her two sisters were alcoholics, and that Edna was addicted to morphine in her last years.

The book is especially strong in giving the family dynamics--the way in which family members succeeded in wounding one another at their most vulnerable times and in their most vulnerable spots. Edna Millay is revealed as very human--limited, and even cosseted. She died, widowed and childless, in 1950, but she had won considerable stature as an American poet.

18 October 2004
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MILLER, JOHN E.
   

BECOMING LAURA INGALLS WILDER: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE LEGEND (1998)


This biography of the well-known author of the Little House books for children isn't especially well written or edited and is replete with material garnered from the social pages of the local newspaper, evidently.

We learn that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a clubby sort of woman when once established in Mansfield, Missouri. We learn very little about the actual writing of her books.

Another biographer has recently claimed that Mrs. Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, actually ghost-wrote much of her mother's fiction.

This biography by John E. Miller seeks to establish Laura Ingalls Wilder as the primary author, with considerable editorial help and advice from her daughter.

3 May 2004
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MILOFSKY, DAVID
     
     PLAYING FROM MEMORY (1982)

This is a novel about Ben Seidler, a professional musician who develops multiple sclerosis. As he becomes increasingly disabled, the plot turns around how he and his family deal with the changing situation in which they find themselves. His friends and colleagues gradually dwindle away. Dory, his wife, has to make major adjustments. Ben develops a new closeness with his son as they mail chess moves back and forth.



This is not a story for the squeamish: bedsores spawning maggots aren't for the faint of heart. Not an upbeat story but sadly realistic.

1982
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MISTRY, ROHINTON


Image result for Rohinton Mistry photo
      
   A FINE BALANCE (1995)


This is a long novel but it will not disappoint readers interested in an accurate picture of India after the Raj--specifically, in the years 1975-1984, covering the "State of Emergency" declared by Indira Gandhi.

The book does not pretend to be a panoramic survey. It is a gracefully and carefully told story with a few characters given to us in considerable detail. Although we do not often enter into their minds, so much happens to them that to have included their interior monologues would have been to burden the story with far more than it could have borne.

Dina Dalal, a Parsi woman trying to live independently since becoming a widow, is at the center of the story. It is around and through her that the other characters become known to us.

One might expect such a novel, revolving around a woman from a more prosperous Parsi family, to include other characters in her class. But the author keeps them very much on the sidelines (Dina's restrictive brother, for instance, enters into the story only insofar as he helps or obstructs her plans.) Instead, we are given a closely detailed account of the lives of Manekh, Dina's nephew, a student who comes to live with her as a paying lodger, and more especially Omprakash and Ishvar of the chamaar caste of tanners and leather-workers (formerly untouchables), who are trying to rise in the world by becoming tailors. They too occupy Dina's rented house for periods of time as she employs them--illegally so far as her landlord is concerned--to sew for her so she can maintain her at-home sewing business by delivering a specified number of sewn garments to the woman with whose business she is under contract.

But many disasters strike these ill-fated people, and the author is unsparing in the details, which are vivid and plentiful, but never gratuitous, never seeming to be there for their effect. It would have been all too easy for the author to play to the gallery here by giving an unending spectacle of gore and sexually explicit scenes. There are grim and freakish incidents, but the author's story and the compassion it inevitably elicits remain the abiding concern of this narrative.

We care about the fates of Dina, Manekh, Om, and Ishvar--and of Monkeyman, Beggarmaster, and even Ibrahim. Sometimes their fates are almost unbearable to witness, but they have the terrible power of verisimilitude. In this novel we learn about forced sterilization.

The novel is not preaching for any school of thought--just presenting the horror of the way in which a poorly run, modern bureaucracy can ruin people's lives, riding roughshod over the individual and failing to grasp any part of his particular situation.

The sixteen section headings might mislead a casual observer into thinking that this will be a quiet, orderly story: "City by the Sea," "For Dreams to Grow," "In a Village by the River," "Small Obstacles," "Mountains," "Beautification," "Return of Solitude," "Family Planning," "The Circle Is Completed," for example. There is an especially grim irony lurking behind "Small Obstacles," "Beautification," and "Family Planning." There is an epigraph from Balzac, reminding us that this is truth being told. It might be the author's intention to remind us--even while diverting us with his story--that the lives of most people in the world are not as easy or pretty as our own, that even such matters as the hygiene we like to take for granted in the more developed parts of the world have been a luxury far beyond the reach of many in India.

Rohinton Mistry has arranged these disparate lives in a masterful way that seems harmonious to the reader although the lives themselves are often on the brink of chaos.

The edition I read had no footnotes or glossary but the text has many Indian words not found in a standard English dictionary. As the narrative proceeds, sooner or later their meanings become clearer. In fact, the lack of explanatory notes made it possible to become immersed in the story without distractions.

4 November 2003
      
      FAMILY MATTERS (2002)

In this novel about a Parsi family in modern Mumbai, the author gives us a view of three generations living under one roof--after a fashion. At first the novel seems focused on the 79-year-old Nariman Vakeel, formerly a professor of English, who now has Parkinson's disease and needs the help of his grown children: Roxana, his daughter, and Jal and Coomy, his stepson and stepdaughter.

In the first part of the story Nariman is able to communicate, but as time goes by his comments become less and less intelligible, and finally cease altogether--at which point he is truly a captive of the relatives who have become his somewhat reluctant caretakers.

Towards the end he dies, and he is probably quite aware of his family's limitations, though we do not know for sure how aware he is. We do not get into Nariman's mind. His daughter Roxana and her husband Yezad, and their two sons Murad and Jehangir, prove to be far more compassionate towards him than Jal and Coomy, whose plot to bash holes in their house just so that Nariman won't be able to live there illustrates the cruel lengths people will go to in order to avoid being thrust into the role of caregivers for ailing relatives.

Though their plot is eventually exposed, they have already managed to deliver Nariman by ambulance into the hands of Roxana and Yezad, who have no choice but to take him in. They have far less space for him but they make arrangements. Family life is strained but not nearly so heartlessly as it was for Nariman when he was at Jal and Coomy's place. Murad and Jehangir react to their grandfather sensibly and treat him with respect.

There is a tragedy, but it serves to resolve some of the family's conflicts by bringing everyone who is left together under one roof. Yezad decides to return to the traditional Parsi (Zoroastrian or Zarathustrian) religious traditions, which are very elaborate and specific. As he becomes increasingly exacting in these diligent observances, the reader senses, through his two sons' only faintly stifled skepticism, that the author himself may have doubts about the value of the concept of preserving Parsi "purity."

This book, like A Fine Balance, contains a number of elements that will be incomprehensible to an ordinary English-speaking reader, but they contribute to the sensation of being truly immersed in part of Mumbai life.

8 May 2005
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MITCHARD, JACQUELYN

      BREAKDOWN LANE (2005)


A novel where the central character has multiple sclerosis is seldom found, but this is one. The author does not have MS but her best friend does.

Julianne, the protagonist, writes a syndicated advice column in addition to being a talented dancer, and a wife and mother of three. Her husband Leo suddenly decides to join an "intentional community" elsewhere, and we learn later that he is interested in a younger woman who is part of that community. He has exchanged e-mails with her (she is named Joyous--Joy for short), and the only reason we find this out is because Leo and Julie's kids read his e-mails after his departure, in an attempt to find him.

For he has misled them into believing that he's supplied valid addresses and phone numbers when he hasn't. He apparently wanted to disappear from their lives.

One flaw in this story is the length of time it takes his family to mobilize their forces toward locating him. Many months pass before any action is taken in this regard.

Meanwhile, Julie is developing peculiar symptoms, which turn out to be those of multiple sclerosis, and she starts taking a weekly shot (probably Avonex) that cripples her for a couple of days every week.

Eventually the two older children take off surreptitiously and find Leo and his community. Not only does he have a new woman partner--they already have a baby and are expecting another. His own parents are so outraged that they stand behind Julie in her battles with Leo throughout the story.

Julie also has a couple of women friends who are in psychology and who invariably say the right thing just when she is most in need of hearing common sense and worldly wisdom. This patter of sociological rhetoric weighs down the book, in my opinion, and could easily have been dispensed with.

At about this point, along comes--surprise!--a knight in shining armor, in the form of a man who knew Julie in grammar school and who has had a lifelong crush on her, even though he's been married and widowed and has a daughter. Now (wouldn't you know?) he's fortuitously employed as a medical doctor, a plastic surgeon doing no end of good in the world. AND he's got a wad of money that must be endless.

The next thing we know, he's buying a new car for Julie's son Gabe, throwing a wedding in Las Vegas and flying Gabe's Thai girl friend over for several days from Thailand for the occasion, giving Julie an eye-popping diamond ring, and on and on. And Julie is well on her way to becoming a famous writer, with the publication of a book of her poems.

I don't know what the author's purpose was in writing this story. Since she's written other novels, maybe it was to provide an entertaining story for her readers, one with a relentlessly upbeat happy ending.

I have nothing against happy endings, but this one is laying it on too thick. Single moms with a potentially disabling neurological disorder don't usually marry rich doctors who are perfect in every imaginable way.

Not everyone with MS is as well off as Julie is throughout the story, either. Nobody in this crowd is hurting financially. I believe in treating rich people to stories about themselves. But if you're going to write a story about someone with MS, why not write one about a person who feels the financial pinch that is the lot of so many who have this disorder?

This book is moderately well written, and the author is especially good at dialogue. She has clearly been listening carefully to children and teenagers, and she represents their wit and manner of speaking with a keen ear.

7 November 2007

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MITFORD, JESSICA


Image result for Jessica Mitford photo


THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH REVISITED (1998)

An update of Jessica Mitford's well-known American Way of Death (1963), which dissected the US funeral industry (and evidently made a dent in its profitability). The updated version is just as informative and amusing as the 1963 book was. Mitford scathingly attacks the industry's exploitative greed and hypocrisy and strongly favors much simpler, less ostentatious ways of saying farewell to the dead.

21 April 2005
_________________________________
MOODY, ANNE

     COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI (1968)

This is the author's account of her Mississippi childhood and youth--spent coping with the difficulties of being black in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and participating in the civil rights movement.

7 August 1998
______________________________________

MOODY, RICK


    DEMONOLOGY: STORIES (2001)

The stories here have a variety of styles. Some employ magical realism, some imitation James Joyce. Two  stories in this short collection deal with a young man whose sister dies unexpectedly. 

Moody has a liking for the macabre detail. This is a mixed bag.

10 December 2002
_______________________________________


MOORE, LORRIE, ed.

   THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, 2004: SELECTED        FROM US AND CANADIAN MAGAZINES (2004)

Unlike some annual short-story anthologies, this one is limited to the twenty stories selected by the editor, and to my way of thinking, it makes for a more readable and enjoyable volume than the more comprehensive collections.

Lorrie Moore has chosen well. Some well-established writers are represented here: Annie Proulx, John Updike, Edward P. Jones, John Edgar Wideman. Also represented are Sherman Alexie and T. Coraghessan Boyle (both with stories revolving around drinking).

One story, "Docent" by R. T. Smith, is an amusing parody of the Southern idolization of Robert E. Lee, cast in the form of a lecture delivered to an audience of tourists by an aging Southern matron.

Angela Newman's "All Saints' Day" was particularly fine, a story about children and a Sunday school pageant where each child chooses a Biblical character to represent, and one girl and her sister decide to "do" John the Baptist and Salome--to the dismay of the Sunday school leaders.

10 June 2007
________________________________________

MOORE, MICHAEL


Image result for Michael Moore photo

    DOWNSIZE THIS! (1996)

This collection of pieces about the downsizing trend in the US is still timely.  In fact it sounds as if it could have helped to spark the "Occupy" movement that began in 2011.

Moore is angry, as usual, but someone has to be angry about what has been happening to our society--its economic and political situation in particular.  What saves him from being a screeching polemicist is his ability to laugh. This is a funny book but it's also a desperately angry book.

No matter what area of American life he chooses to focus on, he invariably has something to say that is worth considering. 

Just after finishing this book I ran across an article in The Nation explaining how the poultry industry is speeding up the line so that poultry will hardly be inspected much at all--and the workers who already have been suffering from severe medical problems involving their hands and arms, which have been subjected to entirely too much repetitive stress, will have far worse medical problems.

This is exactly the kind of situation that would make Michael Moore angry--another example of  corporate greed that to exploits people harmfully. 

And the chicken you eat will be far more likely to be contaminated.

12 May 2012

   STUPID WHITE MEN...AND OTHER SORRY EXCUSES FOR       THE STATE OF THE NATION! (2002)

Michael Moore is the gadfly many love to hate, but I'm a fan. I came to this book just after watching the Royal Albert Hall version of Les Misérables (for the third or fourth time). The spirit of both works is remarkably similar--rambunctious and funny but full of rage.

This book began to appear in 2001 but then September 11 happened and publication was postponed, as the author explains here:

http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mikes-letter/fahrenheit-911

I can't think of a woman writer who has criticized other women to the extent Moore is willing to hold (white) men accountable in this book.  He is particularly intent on skewering the Son of a Bush, as he calls the second Bush to preside over the US.

Another complaint of his is that the Democrats have been behaving too much like Republicans in recent years, and he backs this up with a detailed list showing what percent of each Congressperson's voting record followed the Republicans' positions on the issues.

This book needed to be written. In days when the right-wing seems to be overrepresented in the media, there aren't enough Michael Moores rabblerousing. More power to him.

10 April 2010
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MÜLLER, MELISSA
       
      ANNE FRANK: THE BIOGRAPHY (1998; 2013)

This substantial biography has been translated from German.  The author had access to persons who knew the Franks and especially to Miep Gies, the remarkable woman who was perhaps their most helpful friend in their time of extreme need.

Over the years the world has learned that Otto Frank, Anne's father and the sole survivor among the eight Jews who were hidden in the "secret annex" in Holland, excised large segments of Anne's diary before its publication. These segments--which he deemed too personal or potentially hurtful to some individuals--were made available to this biographer although apparently she lacked permission to quote from them in the 1998 edition of her book. The 2013 edition provides abundant quotations, and it becomes evident that a considerable quantity of important material was withheld from the published version of Anne Frank's diary.

The English title, Anne Frank: The Biography, seems an unfortunate translation as it  implies that this is the (definitive) biography. A literal translation of the original German title might have been better: The Girl Anne Frank.

The author devotes much attention to wondering if the person or persons who told the Nazi authorities about the secret hiding place will ever be known. She concludes that there were very many ways in which the secret could have been revealed and even states that it is probable that at least some in the vicinity looked the other way routinely as they saw large quantities of food going into the building that housed 8 people clandestinely.

The author has selected telling parts of Anne's diaries to demonstrate what it must have been like to have lived in constant fear and at such close quarters with others--including even a cat.

She also provides sufficient background information on the gradual buildup of the Nazi campaign against the Jews to give the reader a clearer awareness of the tightening noose.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, she provides evidence that Anne (and presumably those living with her) were keenly aware of the fate that awaited Jews who were being mysteriously transported. There were too many rumors. As difficult as it must have been to believe that such inhumanity could exist, they were obliged by  awareness of their own circumstances and of what they saw happening around them to realize that brutality on a scale never before seen was proceeding unchecked in their time and place.

The author speculates, with good evidence, that--at least as time went on, and their stay in hiding was prolonged far beyond their expectations--that Anne maintained her diary partly in the knowledge that some day the world would want to know how they had survived.

We can only be very glad that her diary was found and treated with the care it deserved to have. For it is clearly not just a record coming out of the Holocaust--it is also the testament of a very gifted writer, someone who could have shared her talent with the world for many decades had she been permitted to live.



8 March 2015
_____________________

MUKHERJEE, BHARATI


Image result for Bharati Mukherjee photo

    MISS NEW INDIA (2011)

Perhaps it was the author's intention to give us a part of the life of a typical young Indian woman here.  A couple of Indian reviewers have stated that the novel misrepresents modern India--specifically, Bangalore--and suggested that the author is out of touch with the real situation.

In any event, the heroine of this story is struggling to manage on her own by getting a job in a call center in Bangalore, after having run away from an arranged marriage her parents had been promoting for her. When  the chosen  young man, left alone with her on their first meeting, rapes her brutally, she feels she has no recourse but to leave her family, who then treat her as if she is dead. 

Mukherjee has raised the question of one of the most terrible problems inherent in arranged marriages: When the prospective bride's family has little or no money and can offer not much in the way of a dowry, what chance does she have of making a very good match?

This is where maybe I don't understand about how these arranged marriages work. I always thought that the idea of a dowry was, to put it bluntly, to pay a young man to take a daughter off her parents' hands so that she would no longer be a burden to them.  But Anjali Bose, the young woman in the story, regards the dowry as saying something about how much the bride's parents think she is worth. After witnessing her father offering golf clubs and other items to the young man, she concludes: "'Even my father thought I was worth a matched set of golf clubs!'"

The issues raised in connection with Anjali's marriage are dropped as the novel moves forward, though, and new situations arise. In Bangalore, she is first housed in the decaying Raj-era mansion of Minnie Bagehot, along with several other young women. Later she is more or less taken under the wing of Parvati and her family, who are well off.

Left behind are Anjali's sister and mother, hardly mentioned again, but then they have apparently declared her dead.

As Anjali struggles to "neutralize" her English so that callers won't identify her as Indian from her accent, we see how naive she is.  It surely must strike most readers as sad that an Indian finds it necessary to emulate Americans  just to survive financially.

This is a well-told, absorbing story. I wish Mukherjee hadn't peopled it quite so densely with characters, however. It might have been a more reflective work with fewer characters. 

4 April 2013

   THE TREE BRIDE (2004)

This is a sequel to Desirable Daughters, and, together with Miss New India, the author has given  us a trilogy.

In this second volume the story of Tara Chatterjee fades into the background though the material that makes up The Tree Bride amounts to an adumbration of Tara's origins. We are led to a better understanding of Tara's world through the web of stories (or legends) explored in this book.

The Tree Bride was Tara's ancestor, Tara Lata Gangooly, who was married to a tree as a symbolic "marriage" after her fiancé died from a fatal snakebite. She used the resources from her dowry to help finance the Indian struggle against the British and became a local legend. 

There are a couple of other stories woven around this one, and The Tree Bride becomes almost too involved to follow sometimes, but it amounts to a fascinating discourse on Indian beliefs and customs.

28 May 2013


    DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS (2002)

The author tells the first-person story of Tara, one of three "desirable daughters" born into a very prosperous Bengali family.  The three daughters are groomed and cosseted with top-quality education and ultimately turned out into (usually) arranged marriages.

Except that there's a secret that comes out in the story--one of Tara's sisters had an illegitimate son. This fact  comes out into the open when a young man claiming to be that son appears on the scene.

Things take a downhill turn then. But somewhere in the middle of the novel, it is as if Mukherjee has lost interest in her characters for the events become somewhat confused.

However, the book is packed with interesting facts about Indian customs and beliefs and lore. The author writes a fast-paced narrative and is especially adept at handling dialogue. 

She is dealing strictly with Indians of the very top levels on the economic and social ladder. These are people who think nothing of flying all over the world. Their highly trained minds are in demand wherever they go. Money flows freely. The narrator's comments on their lives are often tinged with a sarcasm that lets the reader know that she (and Mukherjee herself, most likely) is capable of standing back and looking at this world in perspective, seeing its shallow materialism--as is particularly evident in the sections dealing with the sister who gave up her baby and went on to a life of fame and prosperity.

I have read other works by Bharati Mukherjee and have found her always well worth reading.

10 December 2011

___________________________

MUNDY, LIZA


    MICHELLE (2008)

This brief biography of Michelle Obama, by a Washington Post  reporter, may have been written to give a boost to the Obama campaign. Be that as it may, it is moderately informative though only occasionally somewhat critical.

Still, maybe there is little to criticize in the First Lady. She comes across here as very special indeed--a woman with incisive intelligence, humor, and know-how who cares intensely about the concerns of women and children.

The discussion of Michelle Robinson's childhood is sketchy, and her parents and even her brother pretty much disappear from the book by the time she reaches adulthood.

I'd have appreciated more emphasis on her remarkable father, who worked as a laborer at a Chicago patronage job all his life--and died at the age of 56, having had multiple sclerosis for years.

6 July 2011
_____________________________

MUNRO, ALICE

     TOO MUCH HAPPINESS (2009)

The ten stories in this collection aren't day-brighteners. Many of the characters are trapped by uncontrollable circumstances, and many of the situations are grim.

But the author often sounds a profoundly hopeful note, as in "Wood," where Roy, who has a secret hobby, wood-cutting, injures his ankle while chopping down a tree and is found by his wife. She hasn't driven in years because of her failing health, and yet she drives the car to find him, then drives him to a hospital.

Perhaps the darkest story is "Child's Play," where the critical event of the narrative is withheld from the reader until the end, though what happened can be easily guessed early in the story: Charlene and Marlene, girls of about 9 or 10 who are friends in summer camp as well as in their home neighborhood, share an extreme dislike of Verna, a child who lives in a duplex shared with Marlene's family and is a "special"--developmentally disabled and not capable of enjoying the same activities as Marlene and Charlene. In camp, an opportunity arises, and without a word of conspiracy or planning between them, Marlene and Charlene push Verna underwater until she drowns.

"Deep-Holes" gives a wonderfully apt rendering of Kent, the estranged son of Sally. After an accident at a family picnic that resulted in his breaking both legs as a child and being left with a permanent limp, he retreated into himself, then disappeared after six months of college. Years later he turns up in Toronto, where he has been "living in the present" for 7 years.  The story captures the often-sanctimonious attitude of a young man who has adopted a lifestyle of begging and giving to the needy--while rejecting his well-meaning and loyal mother.

"Too Much Happiness," the last story in the book, is somewhat different from the others because it follows--fairly closely--the actual life of Sofya Kovalevskaya, the well-known 19th-century Russian mathematician.  Her life story sheds much-needed light on the difficulties faced by even prosperous women at the time.

Kovalevskaya's first marriage was a "white marriage," contracted purely for the purpose of enabling her to leave Russia. Without her parents' consent, a woman could not leave Russia unless she was married. Later, as a disciple of the eminent mathematician Weierstrass, she was able to find academic employment in Sweden, where the university that hired her then became the first university to hire a woman in mathematics.

Kovalevskaya was also a novelist of some distinction. 

18 September 2014


    CARRIED AWAY: A SELECTION OF STORIES (2006)


While reading this selection of stories by Alice Munro, whose fiction I have been reading for many years, I was happy to learn that she received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013.


Margaret Atwood has provided an introduction, and I would hazard a guess that  Margaret Atwood had a hand in compiling the extraordinary chronology that is appended. Many works of fiction include such a chronology, which usually provides a listing of the key events in the author’s life. But this one attaches to every listed year a notation of just one or two significant books published during that year. By a very odd coincidence, at least seven of the books in the chronology happen to be by Margaret Atwood. Surely Atwood has not been generally regarded as such a significant author as to justify the inclusion of so many of her works in such a list….

But this is by the way. These stories are all exceptionally fine—most set in Canada, some taking place in the 19th century, and all representing situations involving people coping with rather ordinary lives. None of the characters is a dazzling success. Munro’s world isn’t the sparkle and glitter of great prosperity.

“Save the Reaper,” for instance, gives us Eve, a woman of around 60 returning to a vacation spot recalled from her childhood, accompanied by her married daughter and her two children. The daughter is about to ditch her by returning to her husband instead of staying the agreed-upon three weeks, and the reader feels Eve’s increasing awareness of her own isolation closing in on her.

“The Bear Went over the Mountain,” the final story in the collection, centers around Fiona, a woman of about 70 who seems to be afflicted with senile dementia and whose husband visits her regularly in a nursing home, where she has become so friendly with a former acquaintance, Aubrey, who happens to be in the same home—but only temporarily—that she treats her husband’s visits almost dismissively. Gradually we learn that the husband has been a lifelong philanderer, and the story has an extraordinary conclusion that seems to mete out something like justice to the four people involved (Fiona and  her husband Grant, and Aubrey and his wife Marian).

Even with its upbeat ending, the story manages to paint a grim picture of the realities of nursing homes, where dignity no longer exists—e.g., there is evidence that those who do the laundry there don’t bother to match up the clothes with their rightful owners.  Munro speaks of the nursing home atmosphere as “a haunted rigidity, as if people were content to become memories of themselves—final photographs.”

Alice Munro deserves to be more widely read and appreciated. Her carefully crafted stories take us inside the quietly tormented lives of women and girls to whom fortune has not been kind.


October 18, 2013

    DEAR LIFE:  STORIES (2012)


A fine collection of stories, including several largely autobiographical pieces at the end.

Often the stories--all with a Canadian setting--are told by a woman in the first person, and many of them involve family problems arising from the Depression of the 1930s. Some of the characters have been maimed--one with a lame leg due to polio, for instance.  One takes place in a TB hospital.

Munro's characters do not have happy lives, and at least one of them, Jackson in "Trained," seems inexplicably detached from people with whom he has had long associations.

Munro seems to be presenting the world as she sees it: filled with people whose lives may make no sense, may have very little joy in them, but here they are. She bears witness to those who haven't been able to speak for themselves.

In the final autobiographical piece, "Dear Life," we learn that as a child Alice Munro was often beaten by her father--and that the practice was "not uncommon" at the time (the 1930s). With these stories she has shown a few facets of this past time, with its own forms of cruelty and want.

March 23, 2014

   HATESHIP, FRIENDSHIP, COURTSHIP,      LOVESHIP, MARRIAGE: STORIES (2001)

The stories by this contemporary Canadian author deal with characters and situations that are off the beaten path. The stories are affecting and well told.

15 January 2006

    LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN (1971)

This is Alice Munro's only novel, and it reads almost like a collection of short stories strung together in a loose chronological order.  The main character is Del Jordan, a girl who--like the author--grows up in Canada in the 1930s-1940s.

The story is about her coming of age--specifically, the way in which she lets her romantic interest in a boy sidetrack her so that she doesn't win a college scholarship. 

The characters here are drawn with a finely observant eye--and Munro is particularly adept with Del's best friend, the callous and often cruel Naomi.

Passages in the novel dealing with both  religion and sex are forthright and illuminating. Munro has some important things to say here and says them resoundingly and clearly.

24 November 2011


   THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN (1998)

A collection of absorbing stories, usually with a Canadian setting.   In them women struggle with abortion, family, divorce, and other problems. One ("My Mother's Dream") is actually told from the point of view of a woman character's baby. Here Munro appears to be toying with magic realism, and I wish she hadn't. The story borders on bad farce.

In "Rich as Stink"-- the title doesn't fit the story very well as the focus isn't on how rich Rosemary's family is--the reader has to be well into the story before finding out who "Ann" is. However, the story is remarkable for its perceptive representation of an 11-year-old girl's misguided attempts at coping with divorced parents--showing her sad lack of understanding of the situation as she tries to clown around in a forced way.

"The Children Stay" shows us Pauline, a young mother who leaves her husband and children and lets a long time pass before giving the kids a thought.  I find her almost incredible, and I'd have liked to have known how much contact her kids had with her later, but we aren't told.

All in all, these stories weren't as well crafted as some of Munro's other work, but still they are absorbing depictions of the lives of people in their everyday situations--with a special focus on the 1960s.

8 June 2012


     RUNAWAY (2004)


More superb stories by this writer, whose books are best-sellers in Canada. These stories take place in the Canada of various times between the 1960s and the present.

The focus is always on a woman, and the characters are usually unexceptional, but their lives are tangled by the kinds of complications that many readers will find familiar from their own lives.

The author deals with her characters in a sensitive way and expresses herself well, without any of the stylistic gimcrackery or touches of magical realism that characterize much of contemporary fiction.

She is content to tell a story and tell it well.

25 March 2007

 


     THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK: STORIES (2006)

In this beautifully written collection of stories Munro is exploring her own family's history. She is upfront about having tinkered with the facts at times, but one suspects that most of these narratives are largely autobiographical.

Her ancestors came to Canada from Scotland, and she must have listened well and done considerable research to be able to describe such episodes as their voyage to America in so much detail.

The stories are arranged so that they move closer to the present as the reader progresses through the book.  These stories are very honest and touching and well told.

6 June 2010

   FAMILY FURNISHINGS: SELECTED STORIES 1995-2014 (2014)

This collection incorporates many stories I had already read but, with a couple of exceptions, they are worth rereading,  Her characters work in hardware stores, work as hired girls, schoolteachers, foundry workers, turkey farmers. They know poverty, they know trouble.  In some of the stories where there is a first-person narrator, Munro seems to be writing autobiographically.  "Soon" points bleakly to the distance that geography and personal preferences can put between a parent and a grown child.

These aren't happy-ending stories. Now and then Munro seems to be having a bit of fun mocking the type of person who likes to dwell on the most unpleasant details of daily life, but by and large there isn't much levity in the situations Munro highlights in her stories.

February 7, 2017

   
_______________________________________

MURDOCH, IRIS
      
     THE BLACK PRINCE (1973)


Maybe I'm just not an Iris Murdoch fan. This book was well reviewed, and it seems well constructed and well written.

The central character, one Bradley Pearson, who has suffered from writer's block for many years in spite of a very keen desire to write, is a tiresome, self-deluded windbag. Amazingly he still has friends who seem to be on hand as needed to help him.

The book revolves around Bradley Pearson and his network--his ex-wife, a sister, a couple who are long-time friends, and their daughter, primarily. There is also his ex-wife's brother.

These people go in for melodrama in a big way. The couple, Arnold and Rachel Baffen, get into knock-down-drag-out fights, and early on--according to Bradley, who comes upon the scene--Arnold has been brutal with Rachel.

Later there is a suicide--and then there is a murder.

Bradley Pearson may or may not be a reliable narrator. The reader is probably meant to realize this from the outset, and if the reader fails to, by the end of the narrative there will surely be doubts.

But if Bradley's account can't be depended on to be accurate, can we assume that his story of finding Rachel Baffen to be the victim of her husband's violence is true?

By far the most tiresome part of this novel, in my opinion, is Bradley's infatuation for the nubile daughter of Rachel and Arnold. Having already bedded Rachel, he proceeds to woo the daughter without giving a second thought to Rachel. At 58 he is clearly feeling the waning of his masculine powers--hence his pathetic attempt at making himself seem younger by lying about his age to the Baffen daughter, Julian.

He insists that they love each other but it is quite clear that this is an instance of lust and little else, at least on Bradley's part. That he is going through an emotional crisis is also clear, but I had problems developing much sympathy for him.

While she's at it, Murdoch uses the occasion of this book to do a bit of showing off of her literary knowledge. I found this irritating. I wish she'd just been content to tell a good story. She hasn't done so.


24 April 2009

    THE WORD CHILD

This novel concerns a man with a real flair for languages, who is embittered at his failure to make the grade academically, a man with hatred so close to the surface that he is constantly seething.

He has no qualms about declaring his love for whatever woman he is with, regardless of her marital status, or about having several affairs going on at once. He jealously guards “his” space everywhere—at work, at home—and manipulates other people shamelessly in order to achieve his goals. Above all, he leaves destruction in his wake without even seeming aware of what he’s doing—and he wins points by violence, or the threat of violence, in spite of being among supposedly civilized people.

March 1988

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