24 June 2005



     WAXWINGS (2003)

The author, who I understand from reading another of his books is transplanted from the UK to the Seattle area, has written a novel about a man transplanted from the UK to the Seattle area.

For me, part of this novel's charm was the explicit detail in which descriptions of the area are given. It might not have as much appeal for readers who don't live in this region, but it is a solid story, absorbing and well-told, with a generous amount of humor injected into a serious tale.

The protagonist is one Tom Janeway, a professor at the University of Washington. His wife Beth leaves him, and then he is falsely accused of being involved in the disappearance of a girl simply because he happened to be in an area where the girl was seen last.

It doesn't take long for his career to come tumbling down--and at the same time he finds himself at the mercy of a Chinese illegal alien who is supposed to be working on restoring his house.

It is his uneasy relationship with this man, Chick, that is the most complex part of this story. The author has a gift for dialogue and conveys Chick's attempts at "trendy" English in a way that makes them seem unforced and authentic.

Finn, Tom and Beth's four-year-old, also comes through talking and acting like a real four-year-old--and shows his talent for acute perception by cutting through his parents' attempts at lying to him about the divorce.

As the author moves the story along, he manages to skewer many elements of US society--including well-meaning child therapists and teachers, hustlers like Chick who are always on the lookout for money to be made, divorcing parents who try to sugarcoat the situation to their children, just to name a few.

5 March 2008


       MY SALINGER YEAR (2014)

This work of nonfiction names names, with a few exceptions. The author, naive enough never to have read a word by J. D. Salinger and armed with a  newly minted Master's degree, gets a job as an assistant at a place she calls "the agency" although it is clearly Harold Ober, the somewhat quirkily old-fashioned literary agency used by J. D. Salinger and many writers.

It is 1996, and she is 24, living with a heel of a guy named Don, unbeknownst to her parents, in an unsavory situation. I wondered throughout her account why she didn't get rid of Don, but her story pales by comparison with the literary story she has to tell, and she has the good sense to keep the events of her personal life in the background long enough to focus on the Salinger moments.

As part of her job Rakoff must sort through the piles of fan mail Salinger receives. Forwarded by his publisher Little Brown, the letters come from all over the world, and Rakoff's task is to reply to them with a form letter stating that Mr. Salinger doesn't reply to letters.  As time goes on and she keeps reading the letters, she comes close to involving herself with a couple of the correspondents--by writing a personal letter that she signs.  

Her relationship with her difficult boss, the agency president (never named), is uphill but they reach a point where there is mutual respect--and woman at the helm turns out to have very tragic situations in her own life that go a long way toward explaining her erratic and often rude-seeming behavior.

Then a situation arises quite unexpectedly in the form of an agreement Salinger has made with an obscure press in Virginia for publication of his Hapworth novella in book form--a story that ran originally in the New Yorker.  Rakoff is involved in the negotiations for this publishing venture, and records her contacts with Salinger in considerable detail.

She gives us small glimpses of Salinger as an ordinary person, a famous writer who hates celebrity and runs from people.  She wisely stays away from the gossipy tales about his personal relationships and concentrates on the Salinger she has seen and heard. At one point she reads through his entire oeuvre in one night--and becomes another devotee.

She makes no attempt at assessing his literary merit. She's just telling this story, her story, straightforwardly and (I'm guessing) quite honestly.

The Hapworth publication plan falls through--because the man in charge of it leaks the story to the media. That story is probably well known in the publishing world. What might not be so well known is another story Rakoff has to tell.

A long-time employee of the agency tells her that shortly before she was hired, someone had sold one of Salinger's letters at auction. A Salinger letter can bring a good price, but in this case the highest bidder was Wynona Ryder, who wrote to Salinger with the letter enclosed and said that she was sure he would want to have the letter taken out of circulation and so she was returning it to him.

The letter never reached Salinger because of the agency's policy of never sending Salinger any of the mail it received--not even, apparently, a letter such as this one,which he surely would have wanted to receive.

The current whereabouts of the valuable Salinger letter are left obscure in Rakoff's account, but it sounds as if the agency has kept it.  Rakoff passes no judgment. She just reports--and lets the readers draw their own conclusions.

The reader gets a good sense of the atmosphere of the publishing world from this account--the way in which "important" authors are kowtowed to and coddled, the constant emphasis on sales and saleability, the ambience of well-oiled camaraderie that prevails as business deals are struck and many thousands of dollars are changing hands.

This was a very enlightening account for anyone interested in Salinger. And Rakoff even tries to answer one of Holden Caulfield's more pressing questions: Where do the ducks in Central Park go in winter?  

March 1, 2017




I know very little about the mystery novels genre but was interested in reading some examples.

I'm afraid I found this story, the first in a series involving John Rebus, a detective sergeant in Edinburgh, less than satisfying.

The plot depends on the revelation of part of Rebus's past that he can't remember. With the help of hypnosis, he does recover the memory but reveals himself to be so shaky emotionally that the reader might lose confidence in his judgment.

The Sherlock Holmes character usually needs to be someone the reader can trust--far from perfect, human, but at least not on the verge of falling apart on us. Or at least that's how it seems to me.

May 18, 2018



This book appeared after the movie Amistad (which I haven't seen) but seems to have no connection with it. The author tells a straightforward, thoroughly competent account of the Amistad rebellion.

In 1839 a group of  slaves from Sierra Leone overpowered the ship's crew, killed the captain and escaped to freedom--though by a painfully long and circuitous route, involving their being transported to Connecticut and incarcerated there for a couple of years before their case was finally settled--in their favor--by the Supreme Court.

The author suggests that it was the group's cohesiveness, despite almost insurmountable language barriers, and its leadership by the remarkable Cinque that made their achievement possible.  By 1839 slave trading was illegal, and it was on this basis that they were able to win their case.

They had help from the abolitionist leaders in the US, most especially John Quincy Adams.

However, upon their being returned to Africa some of the abolitionists insisted on including three Christian missionaries in the party and establishing a mission to "improve" the African mutineers and their communities.

This account is long overdue. Those who learned US history in school up until very recently were told only that slaves were transported from Africa to the US.  We were not usually told about the particulars:  the conditions in which those slaves were obliged to exist, both while being conveyed across the Atlantic and while enduring bondage in this country.

19 May 2015



An autobiography by an Arab-American woman of Christian background who married, had children, and went into public radio broadcasting, having her own talk show for over 20 years. The book contains much information about her struggle with the onset of spasmodic dysphonia, which crippled her voice until a treatment was found.

3 October 2002


    TENDER AT THE BONE: GROWING UP AT THE TABLE               (1998)

The author is a restaurant reviewer for the New York Times. This book is a partly fictionalized account of her life as the daughter of a manic depressive mother known as the Queen of Mold, then as a member of the West Coast commune scene in the 1970s. The focus is on the development of Reichl’s interest in food and cooking.

23 October 1999


Anyone familiar with the writings of Bronson Alcott has found out that he was something of a windbag  and a High Transcendentalist. His daughter Louisa May, however, transcended her childhood with her impecunious and impractical father and wrote one of the most beloved of children's books, Little Women--a story that is in many ways autobiographical.

There were four daughters in the Alcott household, and, as in the novel, one of them (Lizzie) died young.  The indomitable and good-hearted Marmee--the girls' affectionate name for their mother in the book--seems to have been very like the Alcott girls' mother.

But there is no father present in the book. He is serving in the Civil War, leaving Marmee and her girls to run the household. 

Louisa May Alcott did her part in the Civil War, both as a committed abolitionist and as a nurse in Washington, DC, where she contracted a very serious case of typhus pneumonia.

In fact, Louisa May Alcott seems to have done more than her part throughout her life. She never married though she may have had one brief flirtation or love affair.  In middle age she undertook the upbringing of her dead sister May's daughter, but Lulu, the child's nickname, was only 9 years old when she lost her Aunt Louisa to what was probably a stroke.

Louisa May Alcott lived only 56 years but wrote prolifically during much of her life, turning out potboilers in an attempt at shoring up the always-meager family funds--while Bronson Alcott traveled the lecture circuit and attracted a following of adoring disciples but brought in very little income.

The Alcotts were very close to the Transcendentalist milieu in New England, and were often supported in various ways, including financially, by Emerson. They had close ties to Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well.

Family loyalty and a sense of commitment must have been cornerstones of Louisa May Alcott's personality.  At one point she had her father's 52 volumes of journals bound, and she would rush to the bedside of ailing relatives, often helping individuals who were in a crisis.

The biographer's account of the success of Little Women will gladden any reader's heart. 

This seems to be a thoroughly documented and well-told biography, with a special focus on the difficulties facing mid-19th century women, especially unmarried ones, who were expected to be nannies, nurses, governesses, and maids-of-all-work for assorted relatives throughout their lives.

7 December 2015



This hefty anthology of humorous pieces from the New Yorker since its inception is an excellent book for dipping into--or for reading straight through. It is organized topically and includes brief biographical sketches of each of the authors at the end.

Some of the pieces, especially by James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, have been widely anthologized elsewhere.  I skipped pieces by authors I already know I don't have much use for (David Brooks, Garrison Keillor, Christopher Buckley) but found most of the rest of the essays and stories entertaining indeed.

Especially notable was "Space Case" by Anthony Lane, an analysis of "Star Wars, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith" (2005). Although I've seen only the first two "Star Wars" movies, I found his remarks edifying and funny.  And I was happy to see the under-appreciated Ruth Suckow represented in her very funny "Complete Guide for Book Reviewers" (1927). 

However, one has to wonder if the New Yorker is cultivating more celebrities-as-writers nowadays than it used to, perhaps thanks to Woody Allen, whose abundant talent and versatility enable him to excel in writing as well as in the world of movies. But now we find Johnny Carson represented?

And what of Marshall Brickman, who I learned was a member of the folk groups The Tarriers and The New Journeymen and collaborated with Woody Allen on some movies? The inclusion of his New Yorker piece, "What--Another Legend?" (1973) seems most unfortunate.

It sends up the whole idea of finding authentic blues singers among the people of color in the South and making them into legends.  I know of a couple of instances where this has happened, and I question whether it's something to poke fun at. Trying to preserve a music tradition that was born in lives of extreme hardship by recording what the few remaining exponents of that tradition can achieve, thereby giving them a very belated moment of fame, strikes me as a colossally difficult endeavor that deserves only praise and awe, not mockery.

This collection would have been much better without this piece, in my opinion.

21 October 2012


The author, who has been the editor of the New Yorker, presents a collection of his essays and profiles published in that magazine between 1991 and 2006.

The pieces are long, thoughtful and observant. He has given informative profiles of Vaclav Havel, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Mike Tyson, among others--as well as of a husband-and-wife team who are translating some of the major Russian works into English.

His remarks about Mike Tyson--who incidentally has captured the interest of the fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates--are especially valuable as reporting. He scrupulously avoids passing judgment on Tyson and is content to present the facts at hand. Even the fact that Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear during a match is presented without horror, without admiration: this happened, this is how it was, and you can make of it what you will.

This was a book I found well worth reading.

4 May 2009


This is a large assortment of diverting stories from The New Yorker, published between the 1920s and the present and all dealing with New York City in one way or another. Some very well known writers are represented here--John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Woody Allen, John O’Hara, Philip Roth, James Thurber, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger (whose story here must have preceded his famous novel Catcher in the Rye), Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, E. B. White and many others. 

9 November 2006



A murder "mystery" with a twist. We see most of the story through the eyes of the murderer, and the question, instead of "Whodunit?", becomes "Will he get caught, and if so, when and how?"

In Teddy (the murderer) the author does a close study of a warped mind, without delving too closely into its causes--which is a refreshing omission in this era of explaining all dysfunction by childhood trauma. We see that Teddy comes from a family where the dominant atmosphere is a cold indifference, and we may not be surprised when he turns out to be a  cold and indifferent adult.

He has artistic leanings, and in general he seems overly concerned with visual effects. He is deeply disturbed by his own impotence, but overlying this sense of failure is apparently the notion that people can be arranged like puppets on a stage: dressed and draped and posed according to his whim.

If some people are putting obstacles in your path, he reasons, he can just whisk them off the stage--by killing them.

It seems sometimes as if his luck is a little too good. I wonder at how much he gets away with. But the author goes to considerable trouble to provide the details needed to establish verisimilitude, and she does so without any undue smarminess--even though some of the situations in the story are grisly.

This was an absorbing story--like another of Rendell's novels, Kissing the Gunner's Daughter.

1 January 2006



This biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson provides much information about a novelist who has faded into obscurity although during her lifetime she enjoyed popular success even greater than her friend Henry James.

Whether she killed herself or accidentally fell from a window has long been an unsettled question, particularly in view of the effect her death had on Henry James. Was he having an affair with her? Or was she so crushed by a supposed rejection by James that she ended her own life?

This biographer acknowledges that Woolson could easily have fallen: she was quite ill, perhaps feverish, perhaps weak, and there is very little evidence of any premeditated suicide.

The biography is eminently readable and sensible.  I have a couple of quibbles, however. One is merely stylistic. The author confuses convince with persuade at least three times. And she has adopted the currently voguish habit of using reference as a verb:  "...Thoreau, whom she references..."

The other is more than a quibble. The author assumes that Henry James was a homosexual, which has never been established and probably never will be. Moreover, her source for this "information" isn't given.

There are these statements:

He [Henry James] was as good at hiding his desire for men as she [Woolson] was in hiding her desire to be loved.

 ...marriage could have provided a cover for [James's] sexuality, as it did for many gay men of the time. 
There is not one scintilla of evidence that Henry James was an active homosexual or even that his sexual orientation was homosexual. It is possible that the "obscure hurt" that was an impediment to his military service was a disorder that rendered him impotent, but nothing specific is known about it.  If that was a reason for his reluctance to pursue a romantic liaison with Constance Fenimore Woolson, it's possible that she felt rejected and bewildered. But there is no evidence that that sense of rejection led her to contemplate suicide--as Rioux acknowledges.

What does come through in this thoroughly documented account, using correspondence as well as Woolson's fiction as sources, is a woman who is often abject in her feeling that her talent is inferior to James's. Whether her attitude was real or assumed (because the world she lived in seemed to expect it), her statements often sound so much like those of a disciple that James might have found them embarrassingly adulatory.

On the whole, this book provides valuable information about this little-known novelist, though the book's title may not suit the biographer's view of her subject. "Portrait of a Lady Novelist" is surely meant to suggest James's Portrait of a Lady--and in doing so doesn't it also suggest that Woolson has significance as a writer only as she is associated with Henry James?

9 March 2018




Some background on this writer, of whom I have dim childhood memories since she was a dear friend of my family's:

In the brief time that she lived in Alabama, Eleanor de la Vergne Doss Risley (1867-1945) produced two notable volumes of sketches and stories that provide an insight into residents of Fairhope in south Alabama and the rural mountain communities and peoples of north Alabama. ... The Road to Wildcat, which appeared serially in the Atlantic Monthly and then was collected in a book (1930), recounts her adventures in the north Alabama mountains.

Eleanor Doss was born in January, 1867, in Nashville, Tennessee... but she spent most of her childhood in Henry County, Missouri. Risley graduated from a Presbyterian school for girls and then married a member of a prominent Kansas City family; she divorced him after the death of their only child, Eugene, at age eight. She rarely mentioned her son again. She then moved to San Francisco, California, where she held various jobs, including teaching music, playing accompaniment for moving pictures, doing welfare work, conducting research for an author, and modeling coats for a department store. ...

Because of continued financial difficulties, Risley returned to Missouri... She married Pierre Risley whom she calls Peter in The Road to Wildcat. ...

On the advice of a doctor who suggested that she might have less than a year to live (she was diabetic and her husband asthmatic), Risley and her husband undertook a vigorous walking tour of North Alabama to improve their health, accompanied by their dog John and a pushcart they named Sisyphus. Letters to her friends describing her adventures came to the attention of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who solicited her contributions to the magazine. His efforts were successful; after initial articles in 1929, the Atlantic Monthly published serially most of Risley's account of her Alabama travels, an account later published as The Road to Wildcat. ... One of her sketches is even given credit for exposing a corrupt sheriff who controlled the local moonshine trade and used his power to arrest people falsely to work on his chain gang, leading the Alabama legislature two years after the book's publication to correct the situation.

Looking for a more economical place to live, the Risleys moved to a rural area about two and a half miles from Ink, Arkansas, a small community in Polk County near Mena, where they lived in relative poverty. In the late 1930s, they moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, residing for five years in an apartment in Carrie Nation's last home, Hatchet Hall, which had been purchased by Eleanor Risley's cousin, noted painter and muralist Louis Freund.

Note: This entry was adapted with permission from the Introduction to The Road to Wildcat, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).


Probably fictionalized to some extent, The Road to Wildcat is the account of the walking trip the author and her husband took in the mountains of northern Alabama in the 1920s. They had no means of transportation other than their wheelbarrow, which was obligingly pulled by their beloved dog when the terrain was especially muddy.

There are cars on the road but they seem to be rare. No mention is made of phones. The hill people don't have television yet, and the couple are made welcome in most places they go, even invited in to stay over--by hosts who clearly have next to nothing to spare.

The author writes gracefully and is imbued with the Romantic tradition. She appreciates the natural world and loves most living creatures.

She was apparently trying to render the mountain dialect as faithfully as she could, but unfortunately exact duplication of a dialect often makes it difficult for an ordinary reader to follow. The book would be more readable if she had used fewer instances of dialect forms, suggesting them rather than noting the unusual pronunciation of every preposition and article.  However, getting at the meaning of some of the passages can be part of the fun of reading this book.

Eleanor and her husband come across as resourceful, quick-witted, understanding people who are grateful for the amiable reception they receive--and who try to make themselves useful in return for the hospitality of these friends they've made along the road.

Moonshine is a part of this story, and it's probably not just thrown in for effect. At the time the Alabama hills undoubtedly had plenty of people making moonshine and selling it. 

This book could easily have turned into something on the level of Lil Abner comics or the tasteless hillbilly postcards one used to find (in the 1940s-1950s) in the southern hills--usually involving a privy, a corncob pipe, moonshine, and unfunny jokes.

--All of which is condescending and even insulting to the people for whom privies and corncob pipes are just part of life.  Eleanor Risley has too much respect for mountain people and their ways to treat them patronizingly.

This book is true through and through. There is not a scintilla of pretension in it.  A woman gives an account of a hike with a wheelbarrow in the Alabama mountains at a time when everyone was poor.  She says nothing about the hard times people were experiencing but the some of the atmosphere of the Depression  comes through in the scenes where money is discussed.

The couple's attitude is summed up when somebody says to the author's husband, "'But you can't walk far in a day and push that cart,'" and he replies, "'There seems,' said Peter, 'no especial reason why we should walk far in a day, unless the road is uninteresting.'"

4 March 2013



  The author follows four nurses for a year, with names and places changed.

  Though this book is definitely partisan, it is probably true that nurses--in the US, at least--get the short end of the stick in most ways.  Those who perceive a doctor making a mistake are in the very uncomfortable situation of needing to correct someone who is above them in the rigid hospital hierarcy--and risk being blamed themselves for something that wasn't their fault.

Overworked and underpaid, nurses need to be more plentiful, and if this book makes one point loud and clear, it's that more nurses are desperately needed if medical care is to maintain or improve its quality, particularly since many of the nurses now working are nearing retirement age.

Some of the many stories included here were rather obviously meant to shock the reader with their graphic details. Also, I'm not sure why the author sometimes gives quotations from nurses using the southern form "Y'all" even though the rest of the dialogue throughout the book isn't written in any regional dialect.

Because the narrative bounces from one nurse to another, it is a little hard to follow.  But that one point, about an urgent need for more nurses, is made. One can only hope that this book will have many readers who will campaign for a solution to the shortage of nurses in this country.

15 April 2017


I can hope that this book has had an impact but I have a grim suspicion that it hasn't.  The author reports on her year "under cover" in several girls' sororities on US campuses. She isn't overtly opposed to sororities but she discloses many situations that are appalling.

Having been fortunate enough to avoid the "Greeks," I knew so little about them that most of the details given here were new to me. Perhaps most surprising--and unsettling--is the picture the book provides of the vast, powerful network that keeps sororities (and fraternities of course) going.

It is fairly clear that sororities and fraternities exist primarily to insure that college kids can winnow down their possible partners to those "of their own kind." The "sisters" and "brothers" can safely ignore their classmates and lab partners and people they might meet at social clubs or study groups and limit themselves to the people they meet in the hectic social life of their sorority or fraternity.

This of course is thinly disguised social discrimination and racism. Robbins describes an African-American sorority member who is subjected to routine racist comments and snubbing on the part of her sisters. This particular student has the poise and maturity to view her time at the sorority house (for which she has to work to pay for) as a "learning experience." But the wounds have been inflicted.

There is a lot of verbiage from the sisters and their leaders about the high ideals and values of the "Greek experience." Philanthropic efforts are espoused but on closer inspection these turn out to be very minimal indeed. So much for "service."

The emphasis is almost entirely on the packaging. The girls undergo "dress checks," and often the color and style of their clothing is predetermined. For the frantic rush period, the "actives" put Vaseline on their teeth to make it easier for them to keep smiling--"'just like beauty contestants.'"

The sororities seem to do little to promote intellectual integrity (the sisters routinely lie to recruits, for instance) or even studying--which is, after all, the main point of college, or such was my impression.  In spite of some restrictions in recent years, hazing continues--and hazing often includes forcing the recruits to drink.

There are coed fraternities now, Robbins explains, and she looks into some of them and finds them to be totally lacking in supervision or restraint.

People find comfort in banding together as part of a group of people they like to think are more like themselves than
those "others" out there. Young people entering college are specially vulnerable--and more inclined to be attracted to something they can belong to than older people would be.

The sorority/fraternity system exploits this vulnerability--and feeds the young people's yearning for the security of a group they can be part of by piling on rituals and secrecy motifs.

"Once an Alpha Delt, always an Alpha Delt," it seems, as members of a sorority have been known to give a job to someone purely on the basis of her belonging to the same sorority.

So there is indeed an old boy network--and there is even an old girl network. The unfairness of this situation is obvious, but so long as people are free to form voluntary associations--like sororities and fraternities--it's possible that there is no remedy for the problem except to persuade people that maybe these college organizations aren't such a good idea, all things considered.

This books is a step in that direction.

4 December 2013


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson has flashes of beauty and thought that are remarkable, but the grammar and the transitions and possibly the verisimilitude are poor, and the ending ruins the entire book for me.

Having posited a woman who is a drifter, and the woman narrator following in her footsteps, the author sets up the inevitable clash between the forces of respectable society and the drifting free spirit who wants no part of society’s restrictions. Like any hoboes, these woman thumb their noses at the comforts of life in a home, the world of church, neighbors and school. But what is false, to me, is the ending. The author states again and again that families can’t be separated because—she likes to believe—memory is insistent and will always make its claims known. Perhaps that is what she and I find it comforting to believe because our own memories are insistent and true. What she doesn’t recognize—and it would have made a far sadder but more realistic story—is that people who are determined to follow the herd will be  adept at forgetting even the warmest memories of a past but disgraced family.

Towards the end of the novel the narrator, Ruth, then a teenager, casts her lot with Sylvie, the drifter aunt, while her younger sister Lucille flees to the world of respectability and acceptance by the town. Then Ruth and Sylvie begin to feel superior to other people, in their isolation and their freedom from the shackles of home and responsibility. Then, as if to prove their superiority, the author ends the novel by harking back to Lucille and clearly indicating (from Ruth’s point of view, of course) that Lucille would forever be haunted by her memories of—and longing for—Sylvie and Ruth. But nowhere before then has there been any hint whatsoever that Lucille had any desire to do anything but escape from Sylvie. I can’t believe that Lucille will ever do anything but wallow in her respectability. There will be no nostalgia for the drifting life.

But maybe the reader is supposed to see that Ruth’s sense of superiority is just a bit of wishful thinking on her part—that no one will envy her her “free” life or even remember her...

(1  October 1981)




A balanced biography, though short on personal details (perhaps because Jordan guarded her privacy fiercely), about the distinguished Texas Congressional representative, her service on the Watergate judiciary committee, her devotion to LBJ--and her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, which she hid from everyone for 15 years but eventually had to make known because someone inadvertently revealed it.

She died of leukemia brought on by taking Cytoxan for the MS.

She was a phenomenon: a black woman from Texas who succeeded in politics--and a very able and intelligent person.

8 September 2003



This is a somewhat overwritten paean to motherhood from a well-to-do participant in the women’s liberation movement of the sixties.

4 September 1999

       PARALLEL LIVES (1983)

This book is a consideration of five Victorian marriages.

Phyllis Rose’s scholarship isn’t always topnotch, and she takes a gossipy approach to her subjects, spending entirely too much time in their bedrooms and indulging in many personal moral judgments—and her vocabulary is snazzily trendy, ringing in Pacman, for instance. 

Can we really ever know whether the John Stuart Mills consummated their marriage? I doubt it. And does it really matter? Is it really our business? No, since neither J. S. Mill nor his wife pretended to be an expert on sex. What matters is that he and she were close intellectually, companionably, for many years. Ideas were exchanged and developed between them. Perhaps stylistic characteristics were also traded back and forth. 

3 July 1994



The author is a well-known journalist in Sweden, and this remarkable memoir of his father has been translated from Swedish.

His father, David, survived the Holocaust after a cruel time in a ghetto in Poland and an even crueller time in Auschwitz. Many members of his immediate family died. David killed himself many years later, after having settled in Sweden, married, and fathered two children.

The author set about piecing together what information he could find about his father's life, with particular attention to what motivated his suicide.

He concludes that the increasing depression that led his father to kill himself was caused primarily by the Auschwitz experience, which was so inhumanly terrible that, for his father, there could be no true road back from it. There was too much of a disconnect between that world and the world of his new life in Sweden. His many years in Sweden were only "a brief stop" on the road from Auschwitz. 

This story makes for extremely painful reading but it is beautifully constructed and told by someone who clearly loved and respected his father.

22 June 2016



Lillian Ross reported for the New Yorker for many years, and this book is a collection of some of her stories that appeared between 1947 and 2005.

She can make anyone interesting. She has a talent for highlighting significant details about a person, gathering those details together in her story--but withholding any suggestion of judgment.  One gets a picture but without any adumbrations that would bring the author's reactions or opinions into it--which is what good reporting has always been considered to be.

So we get to meet Hemingway, Willie Mays, a bullfighter, John McEnroe, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Wes Anderson, and many others, and we see part of a (1949) Miss America pageant up close.

The portrait of Hemingway may be one of the most illuminating essays in this collection.  We see a pathetic figure towards the end of his career--a man whose thoughts sometimes seem so disconnected that their meaning is lost.  

Ross may come close to acknowledging that many of the people she has interviewed represent some of the shallower aspects of contemporary American life in "Symbol of All We Possess," when she follows Miss New York State, a nurse, in the Miss America pageant and quotes her: "'I knew that I would never be selected [for Miss Congeniality].... In nursing I got to know too much about human nature to be able to "act" congenial.'"  In fact, this essay seemed to me among the best in this excellent collection. It shows us as we were at the time--and as we often still are.

June 20, 2018

     INDIGNATION (2008)

It's been quite a few years since Philip Roth made a name for himself with Portnoy's Complaint, which was known for the explicitness with which it dealt with some of the smarmier aspects of life.  There were those who maintained that Roth was exploiting shock value of the material in his willingness to treat raunchy matters in a work of fiction, but those carping critics have probably shut up by now and are currently yawning their way through the many movies and books that are far more explicit than Portnoy.

Coming along in 2008, Indignation, in which Roth is still mining the smarmy vein, seems old-hat and tiresome, as if the author had never managed to get out of the somewhat sophomoric groove he began in, with Portnoy.

It's such a short novel, too, that it almost seems as if Roth himself may have become tired of it after he'd developed a few characters and scenes.

There is Marcus Messner, who died at 19 but who tells the story from a vague afterlife.  His account of transferring to an Ohio college after a year in a cosmopolitan college in Newark, his home town, shows him up against a thinly veiled anti-Semitism on the part of the administration and his own uncertainty about which classmates, if any, he can trust.

The best part of the book, I think, is the long encounter between Marcus and the dean, where Marcus scores some points in favor of ending compulsory chapel attendance and deftly parries some of the dean's more intrusive questions.

But the raunchiness is laid on pretty thick. This book seems like one more example of an overgrown boy's getting away with writing scenes that are mainly meant to be sensational.

1 September 2010



An interesting study of convicted killer Ted Bundy of Tacoma, WA, by this writer of vampire stories, etc., who lives in Seattle and who became a good friend of Bundy’s while both were working on a crisis line in Seattle.

Bundy was executed in Florida in 1986 but the book ends before his execution. The author unfortunately gives no real clue about what might have driven Bundy to kill.

23 August 1999


This is a true but poorly written account of a doctor-couple, two of whose three children die in a fire set by their mother in fall of 1995 in the Midwest. 

29 October 1998


Image result for salman rushdie photos


This book often verges on poetry, with its amazing flair for repeating images and whiffs of themes that run through the book like a finely woven mesh, getting more and more intricate as the story unfolds, but not in an incomprehensibly Joycean way. All the reader has to do is grab hold of each thread and hang onto it to make the book rewarding.

I was very taken by this book in spite of its considerable raunchiness. The raunchiness belongs, though. It is part of what the author is trying to say.

Rushdie  captures beautifully the teeming populousness of modern India—its sounds, smells, and colors, its masses of humanity. Maybe India—his India—is the future of the rest of the world. This is what we are all on the verge of becoming, shortly: brutalized, rendered primitive and animal-like.

This is the ending:

…because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children [those born in 1947] to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes and to be unable to live or die in peace.

He is speaking of the relative few born at a particular moment, but by extension (I think) he means his generation as a whole, and perhaps all succeeding generations.

He talks, too, of fatalism and the “fatal disease of optimism,” and he has thought up a new word, sperectomy, to designate the excision of hope from the human spirit.

3 October 1985

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