27 June 2005




This is the shocking account of a doctor in the Southern Illinois area known as "Little Egypt" who turned out to be a murderer.



    IN THE FOREST (2002)

This novel is based on  a real case, which apparently happened too recently (1994) for emotions to have cooled down because the author reportedly got into hot water about her fictional treatment of the people involved.

The names have been changed, and O'Brien does not pretend that this is a factual account. There is an author's note at the end giving a few details about the real case.

In the novel a young man, Michan O'Kane, who has been headed for trouble from an early age, coming from a dysfunctional family, is so unhinged mentally that he kills a young woman and her small child as well as a priest. Volatile and prone to fly into violent rages, he is at large in the Irish countryside until he is finally captured and sentenced to life in prison.

Without being at all sympathetic to O'Kane, the author has been able to represent what might have been his mental state at various times during his killing spree and immediately after it.  Whether this was his real mental state is never made clear.  I would like to know how much of the novel has been built from facts and how much from O'Brien's imagination.

Did she have access to interviews with the real killer where he revealed his thought processes? Did she perhaps talk to him herself? Or to people who knew him?  Have O'Kane's statements in the novel been made up completely, paraphrased, or directly quoted from the real killer's own?

These questions matter, however, only if we are interested in the novel as an accurate portrayal of the mind of a killer.  Maybe an imagined representation is as good.  What really matters here is that O'Brien has given us a pretty clear notion of what it must be like to live in a world where the line between the real and the unreal isn't drawn, and the picture of that mental landscape is terrifying.

I have one quarrel with this book, and it may seem like a small point, but given the frequent use of racial slurs in many mainstream books even nowadays, I should mention that finding the word "pickaninny" in use in this novel, even though it is used only once, was disheartening.  This word may have been somewhat acceptable (among white people) in the 1940s but it certainly should have passed from common parlance by now.

6 September 2010


The author was paralyzed from the neck down by polio at the age of 7--and died at 49 after spending the rest of his days in an iron lung, one of only about a hundred polio survivors still living in an iron lung.

He was born into a loving family, but as his parents grew older they could no longer care for him and he was sent to a nursing home.  This book makes some powerful arguments against nursing homes. This man's experiences should make anyone think twice before considering one as an option.

He got out because he was very determined to have a life--to become a human being, as the title indicates.  And he did. He got his degree at the University of California at Berkeley and went on to graduate school.  In journalism, he had a chance to interview the eminent physicist severely disabled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Stephen Hawking.

He was usually so isolated that his caregivers (whom he hired) were often his only human contact, and his quest for independence included a quest for romantic love or at least sexual involvement.  As happens too often (usually unfortunately) with many people in similar situations, he fell in love with some of the caretakers.

He is very explicit about the choices he made and how they turned out.  This much description might not be to every reader's taste.

This man must have been very remarkable, and his book calls attention to a much-neglected and forgotten segment of the population--persons stricken with polio.

They are forgotten now because the polio vaccine put an end to infantile paralysis, but there were those for whom the vaccine didn't come along soon enough.  In my childhood young people were still getting polio.  Some weren't afflicted as severely as Mark O'Brien but many have had to struggle with post-polio syndrome in the years since the onset of their polio.  Not a pretty picture at all.

20 April 201)



The authors, who are a married couple, have aligned themselves firmly in the "descriptivist" camp in the ongoing battle among English-language mavens. Have no doubt about it--these people are not about to tell you what is "correct" in English.

They are so  careful not to be prescriptive that at every bend in the road, they are in there telling you, in effect, that we all just have to learn to move with the times and accept the inevitable: Language changes, and just look at how even the dictionaries are reflecting those changes, even changes we might abhor.

Their pet method of helping the controversial usage changes to gain acceptance among those purists who insist on clinging to words and phrases that our authors assure us have gone out with the horse and buggy is to demonstrate that actually those "new" usages aren't so new. So they delve into the OED and other sources and come up with instances of a word in use back in the 16th century. Take that, you prescriptivists!

Their tone gets strident, and they seem to be straining to make sure their presentation is witty, but in general the book is readable and makes some important points about our use of the language.

However, when it comes to "hopefully," I'd like to quibble with them. They liken the recent tendency to use "hopefully" as an adverb modifying an entire sentence ("Hopefully the student will pass those exams") to many other uses of adverbs to modify whole sentences, citing examples like "oddly" and "luckily."

"Oddly" and "luckily" aren't quite like "hopefully," though. There probably can be no confusion with using them to modify an entire sentence. But using "hopefully" in this way leaves the door wide open to ambiguity.

Does "She's going to the awards dinner, hopefully" mean that the speaker hopes that she will turn up there? Or does it mean that she is going to the awards dinner in a hopeful mood--perhaps because she might win an award?

I've noticed quite a number of examples of this sort of ambiguity. The authors should reconsider "hopefully," but that's just my opinion.

I wish they had heaped some scorn on horrors like the use of "fun" as an adjective ("We had a fun time") and "relatable" as in "The characters in this movie are very relatable." But they didn't, more's the pity.

14 April 2015



   WISE BLOOD (1952)





O'Connor's stories are hilarious at times. Her command of the ways and speech of her Southern characters seems masterful, and she treats her characters with understanding, never condescension. She takes them utterly seriously--but she also stands apart from them enough to show them in all of their irrational, befuddled glory.

Some might argue about her use of the words "nigger" and "nigra" but I hope not. Mark Twain, speaking in the voice of Huckleberry Finn, used "nigger" often--because he was representing the way that character would have spoken at that time, in that place. O'Connor is speaking from the point of view of one or other of her characters when she uses the n-word, as should quite clear in any close reading of her stories.

She is pillorying Southern racist attitudes every step of the way, in fact.  In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian's mother won't ride the bus by herself because there might be "Negroes" on it, and here O'Connor pinpoints the nicey-nice style of much Southern prejudice when she has the mother say, on boarding a bus, "'We have this bus to ourselves.'"

Many of O'Connor's characters are maimed or ill--there is Joy in "Good Country Folks" who has lost her leg in a hunting accident, there is the man in "An Enduring Chill" who assumes he is dying,  there is the one-armed vagrant in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," there is Tillman who has had a stroke in "Why Do the Heathen Rage?"--and there are many others.

The last story, "Judgment Day," is unusual in its New York setting--though Tanner, who is getting old and living with his daughter and son-in-law unhappily, wants desperately to return to Georgia, where his buddy Coleman will be waiting for him. Tanner is grimly determined to return home to die after discovering that he's a burden to his daughter and son-in-law. A racial theme undergirds this story, and it may show O'Connor's view of the situation in the United States of the 1950s: Coleman, who has been Tanner's buddy for 30 years and who is paroled to him, is a black man. Tanner, for all of his very traditional southern racism, gives a spirited defense of Coleman, and his statement that "he ain't a bad niggah" might be taken to be very high praise.

But it is an African-American man, a stranger, who turns out to be Tanner's undoing, ironically, for there in New York a northern black man has moved next door, and Tanner has an exchange of words with him, a conversation that has to be a masterpiece in showing how profoundly two human beings speaking the same language can misunderstand each other.

It is in "Revelation" that the southern viewpoint is perhaps most clearly articulated, in the character of Mrs. Turpin as she waits in a doctor's office waiting room with other patients.  As the story unfolds we see that Mrs. Turpin is actually getting away with being quite cruel, and by the time the climactic event--when a young woman in the waiting room throws a book at her and calls her "a warthog from hell"--occurs, we know that Mrs. Turpin isn't just a harmless housewife who is there waiting for her husband to be treated for a leg ulcer.

She has told somebody in the waiting room,  for instance: "'It's good weather for cotton if you can get the niggers to pick it but niggers don't want to pick cotton any more. You can't get the white folks to pick it,and now you can't get the niggers because they got to be right up there with the white folks."

A typical southern view, but coming from a woman who thinks nothing of kicking her husband--Mrs. Turpin is at the center of this story but she is far from being a sympathetic character.

O'Connor presents her southern white people just as they are, letting us know what these people are like. Sometimes she rings in God's grace, which she sees as everywhere in the world and apt to pop up in the oddest situations, but she always leaves the way open for doubt. She is not preaching her Catholic faith at us.

 Some of her stories show very harsh cruelty but above all of the grimness there is her light touch, her gift for comedy.  Maybe I am too biased in her favor because I've known people exactly like the ones she gives us but I believe Flannery O'Connor might be one of the finest writers of our time.

16 November 2016


[Comments on the books listed above are missing. Replacements will be forthcoming.]




In 2002 Ashley Pond, aged 12, vanished before reaching the school where she was in seventh grade. Some weeks later, a neighbor and classmate of hers, Miranda Gaddis, 13, disappeared under similar circumstances. Time was passing, and it looked as if the police and the FBI were following the wrong leads.

Linda O'Neal and her husband Philip Tennyson became involved in the case because Linda was a step-grandmother to Ashley and, as a private investigator, she considered herself qualified to pursue an investigation into the circumstances of the girls' disappearance on her own.

Almost from the start, she cast a suspicious eye on one Ward Weaver, whose daughter Mallory was a good friend of Ashley's--and in fact Ashley had virtually lived in the Weaver household for about a year because she didn't get along with her mother. Weaver had custody of Mallory and lived with a girl friend at the time. He had been so extraordinarily nice to Ashley (and to several other friends of Mallory's) that Linda was suspicious. She became more suspicious on discovering more facts about Weaver--for instance, that his father, a very violent man, was on death row.

It took a long time and a near-murder to bring the law authorities around to Linda O'Neal's point of view about Weaver, but when Weaver tried to rape and kill yet another girl, they began investigating in earnest and discovered the bodies of the two missing girls, whom Weaver had brutally murdered.

Details of the aftermath of Weaver's arrest are given, and the various family members' appalled and sorrowing reactions are explored. The book closes with an impassioned lecture by O'Neal about the need for everyone to be alert for any telltale signs of child abuse or pedophilia among people we deal with every day.

This is a very riveting account of a horrible tragedy told by someone who seems to know what she is talking about. Implicit in what she says is an awareness that as the world becomes more densely populated and impersonal, there is an increasing need for people to make an effort to connect with and know one another better.

It is interesting that the law enforcement personnel failed to catch the signs of Ward Weaver's involvement in the girls' disappearance but those who knew the family relationships and some of the history of the persons involved were the ones who got to the truth and revealed it.

5 March 2009




The recollections of this remarkable Polish woman who did what she could--and under the circumstances it was a great deal--to rescue Jews in Poland during World War 2 are beautifully and coherently told, though the narrative must have been extraordinarily difficult to put together--both because of its complexity and because of the emotion-charged content.

While telling her personal story--of how she, a young nursing student, began by smuggling food out to imprisoned Jews and later hid about a dozen Jews in a cellar and smuggled some of them into the forest where they felt they could hide more safely--she conveys a sense of the extreme porosity of national and ethnic boundaries in Poland during the war, of the way in which both Germany and Russia felt free to overrun the area and leave destruction in their wake.

Irene Gut (she married and became Opdyke after the war) was a believing Catholic whose faith wasn't shaken even when a local priest warned her not to take the course she was taking because she'd be living in sin.

She had confessed to him that when given a choice between unmasking the Jews she was keeping in hiding and sleeping with the German officer who employed her as his housekeeper, she had chosen not to expose the Jews. 

Irene Gut Opdyke came to the United States after the war and, late in life, was honored for her work during the Holocaust.  An obituary (she died in 2003) makes it clear that for 30 years she had never spoken of her wartime experiences.

She seems to have known exactly what she was getting into every step of the way. Here there is no naivete of the sort that may have been part of the makeup of the three members of the German anti-Fascist White Rose group who went to their deaths for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, as portrayed in the film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  Irene Gut Opdyke saw the situation as it was unfolding right around her and did what she could where she was, without aspiring to reach large numbers of people with a message, which she must have known would be much too risky.

8 February 2012


     THE ORCHID THIEF (1998)

The author's report on her trip to Florida to meet accused orchid thief John Laroche. The book contains much information about orchids, the Florida swamp country, and the Seminoles.

15 June 2001



This is a sizeable collection of poems, stories, and essays, every one of them quite readable.

Ozick's densely packed prose is witty and always to the point. 

The two Puttermesser stories are particularly funny--about a woman lawyer with the last name of Puttermesser who creates a golem.

In the essays, "Mrs. Virginia Woolf: A Madwoman and Her Nurse" was particularly interesting as I had just read a book about Virginia Woolf's relationships with the servants. Here Ozick makes a strong case for Leonard Woolf, Virginia's husband, as her principal caretaker.

Her essay on Edith Wharton is based on her reading of the R. W. B. Lewis biography that appeared in the 1970s to wide acclaim. It revealed an affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton.  Ozick turns her attention to Wharton's more mundane everyday life--and comes up wondering how Wharton managed to write so much while being in charge of a large number of servants, several residences, dogs, and a very troubled husband, in addition to traveling widely.

She suggests that Wharton's fiction often rode along on the coattails of Henry James and claims that her much-praised Ethan Frome--one of the rare works where Wharton's characters are not upper class--is slight and overrated.

I tend to disagree with her evaluation of Ethan Frome, but it's been years since I read it.  It held up well in the classroom as a book for discussion in college English classes, and it is a radical departure from most of Wharton's other fiction, but maybe some of us have given it higher marks than it deserves....

Above all, Cynthia Ozick takes Henry James and Edith Wharton to task for their snobbery. Speaking as a New York Jewish writer with roots on the Lower East Side, she is understandably resentful of the sort of élitism whereby she was obliged to have her speech monitored when she was a school girl--she was taught not to drop her final r's, but she points out that speakers of Oxbridge English make a point of dropping their final r's, for instance.

Ozick's work is saturated with Jewish lore and Yiddish phrases. (Ozick has translated several works from Yiddish into English.)  Judaism is clearly a part of her personality, and she has contributed some of its richness to the literature of our time.

18 September 2011


Cynthia Ozick discourses on a variety of topics, including T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Saul Bellow, Isaac Babel, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in these essays.

All of them are well worth reading. Her comments are incisive and original. She gives special attention to instances of anti-Jewish sentiment in such revered figures as T. S. Eliot--who up until recently had been regarded as considerably less fascistic than his good friend Ezra Pound. Some little-known facts about Eliot that show more of his fascistic tendencies, and Ozick highlights these as she also reveals him to have recreated himself with a keenly ambitious eye on success in the literary world.

The work of Isaac Babel has received too little attention over the years, and Ozick's essay should help to establish it among the more remarkable literary endeavors of the 20th century. (Babel was born in 1894 and probably executed in 1940 at the Lyubanka prison in Stalin's Russia). For more on Babel, see:


16 August 2009


Cynthia Ozick has a knack for spinning an interesting yarn, and she does a fine job in this novel with a first-person narrator, who finds herself "hired" (but with only occasional meager pay) as an "amanuensis" by a refugee from Germany (it is the mid-1930s) named Mitwisser. Mitwisser was a noted scholar in Germany, as was his wife, now in a demented state. Mitwisser's specialty is an obscure Jewish sect.

He is very much the head of a household that includes his wife and five children, and hovering on the periphery is the mysterious James, their very generous benefactor. The book's title in the UK is The Bear Boy, referring to James, the original "bear boy," the child model for a series of very popular children's books. James's tragedy--finding his status as the original "bear boy" too heavy a millstone around his neck--is at the center of this story, although other characters' lives that are of almost equal interest are touched on and picked up again and again throughout the narrative.

Ozick has captured the eccentricities of her characters and brought them to life.

31 August 2008


Told mainly from the standpoint of Bea Nightingale, whose name was originally Nachtigall, this novel ends with a question--asking, in effect, who got the better deal, Bea or her ex-husband, composer Leo Coopersmith?

Much of the story--set in the 1950s--revolves around her brother Marvin and his two adult children. Julian, Marvin's son, has gone to Paris and taken up with Lily, a refugee from Romania, and it falls to Bea to act as an intermediary between Marvin and Julian. Julian's sister Iris gets involved as well.

Lily has endured World War 2 and witnessed her husband and three-year-old child being shot. Her experiences have been so very different from Julian's--and she is older than Julian--that the reader has hope for her maturing influence.

Lily works as a translator for a Centre des Émigrés, founded by a Baron whose policy turns out to be directing the Jewish war refugees who come to his center in Paris seeking help to other destinations--i.e., passing them on and thus prolonging their suffering.

This is an intricately constructed and beautifully told story.

20 October 2014

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