23 June 2005




The experience of hallucination shakes the foundations of a person's concept of the real world. This book explores the experience by describing the various circumstances in which it occurs--the ingestion of some substances, migraine, etc.

The author also sheds light on hypnagogic and hypnopompic sensations.

Sacks is drawing on his own experience in some of the accounts. He experimented with LSD and other drugs and noted their effects.

22 September 2015


Books by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, never fail to interest me. First I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, then A Leg to Stand On, then An Anthropologist on Mars. Musicophilia may be the most interesting so far.

He collects unusual neurological cases, often very tragic ones, and presents them in a narrative style that is appealing and comprehensible without talking down to his readers.

Here he treats musicogenic epilepsy, musical savants, and a wide variety of neurological disorders involving music. He calls attention to the rare genetic disorder called Williams' syndrome, in which the afflicted children are, to all intents and purposes, developmentally delayed but have amazing musical abilities as well as very gregarious personalities.

There are people who have nonstop musical hallucinations, often quite disturbing ones involving loud or unpleasant music. There are gifted musicians who lose some but not all of their musical skills--who can hear music and compose it but who have lost an ability to understand musical notation, for instance.

While he is giving these accounts, he makes it clear that for most of these persons, their music-related afflictions have caused genuine and almost indescribable suffering.

Therefore this isn't an easy book to read--but it is fascinating and thought-provoking.

13 January 2010

The author, who worked for some 30 years as a psychotherapist with a Ph.D., associated with Yale University. tells her harrowing story of having endured 89 electroshock treatments in her late teens, when she was apparently misdiagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1960s.  The electroshock treatments left her with a loss of memory, not only of the treatments themselves, but of much of her adolescence.

Nevertheless, with the help of therapy (21 years of it), she created a life for herself, married and had children and must have been successful in counseling others.

The book is divided into three parts, and only towards the end does the reader begin to discern that not only was she misdiagnosed as schizophrenic--she seems to have been sexually molested by her father in childhood, and was really suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when she exhibited the many alarming symptoms (suicide attempts, self-mutilation) that prompted her parents to hospitalize her.

"Seems to have been." She clearly believes that her father sexually molested her. Her father is dead, however, and if anyone who might have corroborated this story was consulted, she doesn't mention it.
Of course, many sexual predators are very careful to make sure that no one knows, and so the truth of an account of sexual molestation by a parent all too often depends on the memories, recovered much later, by the victim, who, a child at the time, quite possibly had a memory that worked more imaginatively than an adult's. Or at least differently from an adult's.

There is only one dim suggestion of something approaching confirmation of Sawyer's story in her account: her mention of a friend who says in passing that her dad was a bit weird.

Sawyer had two brothers and a mother who presumably might have had some inkling of what was going on, but if they were consulted, we aren't told.

A story as appalling as this one cries out for evidence that is more persuasive than the author's somewhat impressionistic recollections. At one point toward the end of the book, Sawyer speaks of "the abused child I imagined within myself."  "Imagined"?
The reader is left wondering how much of her story is real, how much imagined.  Perhaps it doesn't matter. Insofar as her story is real to her, it is insofar forth true. But there was her father and there are the other family members. If the incest is imagined but accepted as truth, won't there be people who have been burdened with unnecessary guilt or blame?  For her mother and brothers,  might the guilt be almost unbearable? They would have stood by and allowed incest to happen. They might convict themselves of being so oblivious as not to have noticed what was happening in the household they shared.

That is my only quibble, though, about a book that makes a strong case against the use of electroshock treatment--and provides a cautionary tale about the questionable nature of many a psychiatric diagnosis. The suffering Sawyer endured is hard to imagine. The fact that she has no memory of the electroshock treatments doesn't alter the fact that the suffering occurred.

February 21, 2018


     GAUDY NIGHT (1935)

In this wonderfully told mystery there is no murder. Sayers's well-known creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, figures prominently, as does Harriet Bain. The setting is Oxford, and a romance that had been about to develop for five years finally gets off the ground at the end of this novel--a romance between Harriet and Lord Peter.

26 April 2003



There may be people who aren’t fundamentally violent, and people who are.  Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has written a book about some people who are fundamentally violent—and about how they came to be that way. Violence pervades the book, but in a subtle, causative way.

Agnes, the murderess who tells the story, is no stranger to violence  even though her immediate family aren’t violent or criminal. Her exposure to violence, the author seems to say, came at an impressionable age, when she witnessed a grueling drunken scene on the family farm where the family of hired hands were slaughtering and butchering a bull. These men and boys, all of whom she’d have known in an everyday way, were playing around with the bull’s inner parts, throwing them at one another and even eating the raw liver and smearing themselves with gore deliberately. The slaughter itself was clearly cruel.

Throughout the story Agnes seems ladylike, gentle, soft-spoken, and yet she shoots another woman at close range. Though her family isn’t violent, she is taught to be an expert shot by her grandmother, also an expert shot, as part of her training for life on a Vermont farm. Guns are familiar to her and easily obtained.

The young persons she meets and becomes friendly with when she goes to Montpelier to live in a boarding house and work as a seamstress are in the habit of being violent with one another—in seemingly trivial ways but violent nonetheless: the insults, the apparently innocuous threats to “knock someone’s block off,” and, most of all, the way the one young man treats his obnoxious married sister, hauling her physically from a room more than once and tying her up in her room. These aren’t “decent” people, and Agnes plays with fire.

In her late teens she sets out to seduce Frank Holt. Her audacity is almost incredible. Later, during the trial, where Frank admits seducing her, no one ever brings up her part in seducing him. The seduction is mostly her doing, as I read the book—and yet her lover takes the blame. She throws herself at him, almost literally, and quite a few people know that she is doing so. But at the trial she doesn’t have to take any responsibility.

Perhaps because she has endured a dangerous and harrowing abortion, the version of her as the wronged woman is allowed to stand, and she gets off on the grounds of insanity, claiming she never remembered shooting Jane.

May 1986


        MANAGING THE SYMPTOMS OF MULTIPLE                             SCLEROSIS, 5th ed. (2007)

This book has been heralded as the definitive work on the subject of MS symptom management.  It isn't long but the information in it is standard and clearly presented/

My only problem with it is that the illustrations are very poorly done--a serious flaw in a book that is giving step-by-step instructions for such tasks as getting up off the floor.

Even without the inadequate illustrations, that particular segment on how to get up off the floor implies that the only way to accomplish this is to have a piece of furniture, preferably a chair or sofa, nearby.  Physical therapists know of ways of getting up off the floor when no such piece of furniture is handy (and it usually isn't handy). Why has a standard work on MS symptom management failed to include this information?

26 December 2012



This is a good novel about two families. In one of them a boy is killed by a hit-and-run driver, who turns out to be the father in the other family. The plot revolves around the bereaved family’s grief and shock and their attempts at finding the driver.

18 April 2000


     MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS: 300 TIPS FOR MAKING LIFE                  EASIER (2006)

This second edition of Multiple Sclerosis: 300 Tips for Making Life Easier (Demos, 2006) came to me as a freebie as a bonus for taking part in a survey. It was first published in 1999. The current paperback edition has 114 pages, including an adequate index, and seems well organized and thought out.

It includes a Preface by the Vice President of the Professional Resource Center of the National MS Society.

The three hundred tips are organized under seven general categories, and whenever a product that may not be generally available is mentioned, the author provides a symbol directing the reader to the end of the section, where companies selling the product are listed. This is helpful, I think. Though I object to books and periodicals that focus on trying to sell products, the purpose of this book is clearly not on product sales. Here the author is doing her readers a favor by providing names, addresses, phone numbers and Websites for specialized products.

My one objection about this book is the same as my objection to much of what the MS Society puts out--you get the impression that most people with MS are fairly well heeled. In fact, you might even think that maybe you can't afford to have MS--when you read about how people with MS have rebuilt their houses, installed raised garden beds in their yard, and got themselves new lift-equipped vehicles.

Shelly Peterman Schwarz seems to assume that everyone has a car and a garage, owns a dishwasher, has a house and yard, and can afford to travel. Once or twice she mentions taking a bus but it's rare. And in the hospital can everyone afford a private room? She advises us to hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on our hospital room door so we can get more rest. You can't do that if you're in a room with roommates.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here. She's clearly writing from her own experience, which is what she knows. She's done a good job on this book, as far as it goes, in my opinion. I just wish she had expanded her horizons a bit to include the many persons with MS who are in the lower-income brackets.

(24 January 2010)



      DREAMING: HARD LUCK AND GOOD TIMES IN                         AMERICA (1995)

Some time ago I tried to read The Handyman, a novel by Carolyn See, but I couldn't get through its smarminess. I thought maybe she'd do better with an autobiography. I thought wrong.

Dreaming has its amusing segments. The author's matter-of-fact approach to her dysfunctional family can be humorous. But try slogging through this account of so many people that they're hard to keep track of, and their many couplings and marriages are even harder to follow.

I don't quite see where "hard luck" comes into the picture, either. True, See was unlucky enough to have a couple of drunks as parents, but her father recovered, and aside from her family, she had some very good luck indeed, it seems to me.

I'm afraid I just wasn't particularly interested in this family's saga.

10 July 2006

      TWO LIVES (2005)

The author Vikram Seth has written an account of the lives of his beloved uncle Shanti and his wife Henny.  Henny was German Jewish, and Shanti was an Indian who studied in Europe.  The pair didn't marry until 1951, by which time Henny, who had escaped from Germany to England, had learned that her mother and sister had died in the concentration camps.

Shanti, a dentist,  lost an arm while serving in World War 2 and had to make many modifications to his dental practice so he could continue working.

Vikram Seth followed up on Henny's friends from pre-war Germany, using interviews and correspondence, and he conveys the tragic awkwardness of the social relationships between Henny and her Gentile friends after the war.

Shanti's final days, when he became confused and tended to confabulate, show a fallible human being nearing the end of his life.

Vikram Seth has drawn a compassionate portrait of these two remarkable lives and in the process has contributed considerably to our understanding of what life was like in Nazi Germany.

29 March 2011


The author is a medical clinical social worker who has counselled persons with MS, and she has MS herself (diagnosed in 1996). This book is one of quite a number of books offering help in coping with MS. 

It isn't a long book, and its advice is fairly standard and commendable. The author suggests making a "gratitude list" of things we should be grateful for, for instance.  She gives considerable attention to guided imagery, meditation, biofeedback, and managing the stages of grief and loss.

However, as with many books in this category, the assumption is that everyone with MS (A) has a car, (B) owns a house, and (C) has ample funds available.  For example, the author cheerily suggests hiring a home health aide, with no discussion of how persons with MS who have no means of hiring a home health aide are to get along if they have need of one.  She also suggests remodeling a home to make adjustments for mobility limitations--again, with no thought to renters, for instance, who can't do their own remodeling. She might be surprised at how many renters are out there who happen to have MS.

She uses the term "MS sufferer," a term I find unfortunate.  And the book is carelessly written. For some reason the author has opted to solve the problem of the maintaining "gender neutrality" in her writing by coming up with sentences like:

   If you think your partner wants to get out, suggest that they go alone and catch you up on things when they come back.

I was going to omit this comment as a bit of carping nitpicking on the part of one of those tiresome English teachers, but the book is filled with instances of this odd confusion of a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent--all in a misguided attempt at avoiding the awkward he or she or he/she. Or at least I'm assuming that this was the reason.

Setting these criticisms aside, I thought that the book
has sensible advice, especially about "mind-reading"--the tendency to assume that our friends and family can read our minds, or to hope that they can, instead of being willing to be direct in stating what we want.

Incidentally, the author is or has been a patient advocate for a pharmaceutical company.

18 September 2010



I've had an interest in Oberammergau ever since learning that imitations of its Passion Play were springing up elsewhere, even in the United States.  One has to wonder if those who are responsible for these copies are truly aware of the history of Oberammergau and its theatrical production. This book should help to enlighten them.

The author presents a very balanced account of the centuries-old Passion Play, presented every 10 years by the citizens of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.  Oddly, the production has usually had strong associations with the Catholic Church, and yet the Church has made it clear that it is not sponsoring the Passion Play--even though many among the audience regard it as very much like a pilgrimage to a holy place.

The author traces the ways in which the Nazis availed themselves of Oberammergau, which proved useful for propaganda purposes as well as becoming the site of a major munitions operation during World War 2.  And in fact the majority of Oberammergau's citizens seem to have been members of the Nazi party during the Third Reich.

What interests the author--and should interest anyone concerned with the origins of anti-Jewish feeling in Europe--is the drama itself, the way in which the Jews are represented as the scurrilous, contemptible slayers of Jesus--slayers of God, to the believing Christians who constitute the audience for this spectacle.

Shapiro traces in detail the attempts at changing the script and the presentation so that the hatred of Jews has been almost expunged. What may be alarming to many is how long it has taken to get this accomplished.

Now--for the Passion Play is still going on, and drawing tourists who bring money into this small town--Jesus is being presented as a Jew among Jews, someone not attempting to found a new religion.  This representation marks a sharp break from the traditional version, in which he was interpreted as (the first?) Christian, being persecuted by Jews.

One  serious problem with this ancient Christian story, covered in detail in most Christian churches during Holy Week, the time when the Passion Play is given as well, is that traditionally the people were stirred up to a fever pitch by the theater--the Mass itself and the Holy Week rituals involve considerable drama, and this is augmented by events like the Passion Play--and often decided that there is strength in numbers and gone on a rampage against any Jewish people in the vicinity.

In other words, the Oberammergau Passion Play did nothing to stop the pogroms or to stop the brutal excesses of the Hitler regime--and it very probably exacerbated the hatred people felt toward a group who didn't share their religious beliefs.

The author could have argued in favor of abolishing all Passion Plays, but in the interests of freedom of speech, he expresses the hope that a more ecumenical, tolerant version of the story of the crucifixion will prevail.

17 April 2013


      SALINGER: A LIFE (2013)

Biographies almost always have an author--the biographer--telling a narrative of the person's life, and it is that author's words that shape the narrative.

These authors apparently decided to do things differently. Having made a movie about the life of the reclusive J. D. Salinger, they produced this lengthy book.

But they do very little narration. The book is a compendium of short (a few sentences, usually) quotations from a wide assortment of people, and every now and then there is a paragraph by David Shields or Shane Salerno--not very often, however.

And instead of footnotes or other documentation to let us know the exact source of each quotation, we are sometimes given a brief reminder about the speaker's identity, then assured at the end of the book that every quotation cited in it has been verified through an independent source (not named). And there is a long list of people at the end, with short descriptions of their connection with Salinger.

This is not a biography in the true sense of the word. It's a collection of quotations, which may or may not be accurate, from people, many of them celebrities.

The authors have one theory to promote about Salinger, and it isn't so  surprising: that Salinger's World War 2 experiences (Hurtgen Forest, D-day,the Battle of the Bulge, and  the opening up of a particularly horrifying sector of Dachau) governed his entire life thereafter, since (they reason) he probably had what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder and he did suffer a nervous breakdown just after the war. The authors see Salinger's most widely known work, the one that made him famous, The Catcher in the Rye, as "about" those war experiences.

Through some delving, and with no compunction about revealing intimate details, they have unearthed women who claim to have been involved with Salinger at various times.  He had a particular fondness for much younger women, even apparently girls in their teens, but here again the authors have a theory: that he would have been frightened by mature women and so he restricted himself to girls before they had matured, women young enough to seem innocent and "safe."  They come up with the somewhat fanciful notion that because Salinger had an undescended testicle, he would have felt self-conscious about this flaw and felt safer from criticism with inexperienced women. However, since, as Hemingway pointed out and is quoted as saying in the book, this flaw is easily corrected, one wonders if it wasn't corrected at some point and perhaps not the problem the authors assume it to have been.

Yes, Ernest Hemingway is here--becoming friendly with Salinger during World War 2, when Salinger appears to have been busily typing away (working on Catcher) in the midst of the chaos of war.

We also get glimpses of William Shawn, long-time editor of the New Yorker and evidently Salinger's principal champion even in a literary world that failed to appreciate the Glass family stories that succeeded Catcher.

There are some interesting bits of information here, if they can be believed. For instance, there is the report that publisher Robert Giroux rewrote history so as to put himself in a better light. Having promised J. D. Salinger that Harcourt Brace would publish Catcher, he reneged on the promise at the insistence of the higher-ups--then later retold the story by claiming that his anger about the way Salinger had been treated prompted him to leave Harcourt, when in fact he didn't leave until some years later.

Then there is a considerable section of this book devoted to assassins--three of them who supposedly were influenced in their killings by a reading of The Catcher in the Rye. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, is given particular attention, though how any of these sad stories is very relevant to Salinger's life isn't clear, and the authors simply muddy the waters by suggesting that there is violence implicit in the book and that some people--Chapman and the other two assassins--detected it. This comes close to calling Catcher a dangerous book, and the authors fail to make any case for this idea in spite of their sensational details about the assassins.

It seems unfair to have so many quotations from Salinger's former lovers when he himself is unable to give his side of the story, too. Of course these women who claim to have been involved with him are going to make themselves look good, and maybe all of them deserve to look good. But I somehow doubt it, if only because of Salinger's silence. What if he was the sort of honorable person who kept quiet about the quirks and faults he observed in his lovers--but his lovers had no such qualms in talking about him? And after all, these former lovers were getting attention when they opened up. It was a type of attention Salinger shunned and literally ran from.

He wanted to go on writing, not to become a celebrity. Fame wasn't his objective. Turning out good stories was. I wish that some of the people quoted in this book had had more respect for that.

All too much of this book depends on speculation--"would have" and "might have" occur entirely too often. And since Salinger did affect many influential people, many of them are uttering their theories and opinions here. The book is impressive in the extent of its name-dropping but otherwise seems a shoddy job.

10 January 2015



Wilhelm Furtwängler, who is  commonly acknowledged as  having been one of the world's great symphony conductors, was also one of the more controversial.  Although he had many opportunities to leave Hitler's Germany, he insisted on staying on--and he paid a high price in the form of ostracism and even a de-Nazification hearing after the end of the Second World War.

His biographer makes a strong case for him here but it is still shaky, in my opinion. Furtwängler probably did believe wholeheartedly that music and politics should be two separate worlds and that music should transcend politics. And he did render genuine assistance to people trying to escape from the Third Reich--there is no doubt of that. Had he left, he probably could not have given the help he gave.

On the other hand, maybe he could have given other kinds of help from a location outside of the Reich. 

His pointed failure to give the Nazi salute at the beginning of every concert is often cited in this book as evidence that his real sentiments lay with Hitler's opposition.

And yet Goebbels, Goering, and even Hitler  himself were often in attendance at those concerts. Furtwängler had frequent interactions with all of the top Nazis, who kept close tabs on the music scene in a strenuous effort to insure that it reflected the Germanic Weltanschauung they were assiduously cultivating.

This book gives a comprehensive survey of just what was being performed in the Third Reich--and by whom.  The play lists were heavy on Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner--both composers who were sympathetic to the Nazi notions of the Herrenvolk--and the Bayreuth Festival was a special Nazi pilgrimage occasion.

Furtwängler would have been treated well if he had opted to leave the Reich, but the fact remains that he wasn't suffering by remaining in the Reich either. Others were suffering, and for him to have been conducting concerts when large numbers of the orchestra members had been forbidden to play because they were Jewish and were being hauled off to concentration camps still seems wrong-headed at best. After all, his concerts had the effect of enhancing the glory in which Hitler hoped to clothe the Reich.

Musically, Furtwängler's performances were undoubtedly stellar.  But attempts at portraying him as an innocent victim here are on a flimsy basis.  Moreover, this man had countless extramarital affairs and fathered at least four illegitimate children.

It is a shame that so much effort has gone into documenting the concerts given under the Third Reich.

Beautiful music is all very well. Beautiful music in the service of a regime run by murderers is no longer beautiful music.  The music of Strauss and Wagner contains passages of pleasing harmony. I think of Wagner's "Liebestod" or the "Pilgrim's Chorus," though I have more trouble finding much to admire in Richard Strauss, especially after the much too often heard strains from "Also sprach Zarathustra" used in the movie 2001.  However, I can no longer listen to any of it without cringing.

Bayreuth is still holding its annual festival although between 1946 and 1951 it was closed down.  I can't think of Wagner's music without remembering the comedienne Anna Russell's hilarious parody of it.

--And without recalling how excessively bored I was when I sat through a performance of Das Rheingold many years ago.  People still take Wagner very seriously.  This biography takes Wagner very seriously.

I'm afraid I came away unpersuaded.

28 October 2011



This autobiography tells of the author’s struggle with dyslexia. Simpson eventually became a social worker, married a celebrated English poet, divorced and remarried, and wrote a novel.

11 November 1999

     MESHUGAH (1994)

This celebrated chronicler of Jewish life died in 1991, and this English translation of a short novel originally in Yiddish that was serialized in The Jewish Daily Forward in the early 1980s was published posthumously.

I've read several other works by I. B. Singer, but this one may be one of my favorites. Aaron Greidinger, the protagonist, is probably a stand-in for Singer himself: a writer of novels dealing with Jewish life. He hops in and out of bed with various women freely, but finds himself falling in love with Miriam, who he much later (when he is about to marry her) learns used to be, not only a prostitute for the Nazis during World War 2 (which he knew about and had come to accept), but an especially cruel capo in a concentration camp.

He does not confront her with the information he has obtained. Instead, at the end, when they are marrying, the novel takes a curious twist as he tells her something that will probably constitute her new husband's way of meting out justice.

This book is well told, well plotted, and moves along at a fast clip. As usual, Singer captures the speech and folkways of the Yiddish-speaking world superbly.

20 December 2006



The author tells about his father, who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Poland by a variety of subterfuges--including enlistment in the Waffen SS.

This short work is an interesting and totally unpretentious meditation on a struggle for survival.

6 August 2007

       J. D. SALINGER: A LIFE (2010)

Reading this book shortly after reading another biography of J. D. Salinger (by David Shields and Shane Salerno--reviewed here on January 20, 2015), I'm tempted to make comparisons, particularly since the Shields and Salerno book draws on the Slawenski biography.

Shields and Salerno have compiled a sloppy mishmash of every sensational detail they could dig up about J. D. Salinger, and this becomes starkly clear upon reading the far superior biography by Kenneth Slawenski.

Even though Slawenski's observations are sometimes trite, and apparently he had no access to the more restricted documents, he has put together a credible and respectful account of what is known about Salinger's life.

"Known," not conjectured. And what is known is actually enough to conclude that Salinger might have found his commitment to the religion of Vedanta inhibiting his creativity, for it is generally acknowledged that the work he produced after he began to feel that he had a religious mission was far less readable and universally appealing than his previous fiction had been.

Slawenski spares the reader any psychobabble or half-baked psychiatric diagnoses for Salinger. Instead he gives some factual details that might (or might not) indicate a very troubled person--and suggests that Salinger's war experiences might have been psychologically intolerable for him, as they would have been for many people.

Much light is shed on the inner workings of the New Yorker during Salinger's time, for he was first and foremost a New Yorker writer. The magazine had its established procedure for reviewing manuscripts sent to them for possible publication, but with the advent of William Shawn, Salinger was apparently the one writer who was allowed to bypass this procedure. Any fiction by Salinger was fast-tracked and assumed to have met the New Yorker's standards. In fact, at least once an entire issue was given over to a long Salinger work.

What this says about the existence of an "old boy" network even in the hallowed domain of a politically liberal periodical may surprise some readers, who might have expected more of a level playing field for all writers submitting manuscripts for consideration. But Shawn and Salinger were close friends, and Salinger dedicated one of his books to him.

This biographer treats his subject with compassion and understanding. He very tentatively suggests that Salinger might have adopted a reclusive life more as a ploy, a bid for still more attention (playing hard to get, as it were), than in a genuine attempt at barricading himself from the world, but he doesn't pursue this idea other than to point out that Salinger's reclusiveness did have the effect of piquing the curiosity of the media.

Slawenski provides sensible interpretations of Salinger's fiction as he goes along, and the result is a very readable and informative book.

27 February 2015


     JUNK ENGLISH (2001)

This brief book includes many examples of some of the worst writing in the language today (in my opinion). The author's point is that the language is being used to obfuscate and to deceive when it ought to be used as a means of honest, forthright expression.

He takes aim at phrases like "friendly fire" and "collateral damage," invented words like "impactful," and other horrors in frequent use in the media nowadays.

George Orwell would have loved this book. Even though it makes several points already made years ago in The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, Junk English is a rich collection of new outrages.

9 January 2009



A true account by a man who had a good job teaching English at Colgate University, with a wife and several children, but who lost his job after three years. His long and unsuccessful search for another teaching job culminates in his adapting to a totally different occupation--construction work--and liking it.

20 December 1999



This is a sometimes confusing autobiography. Born rich and privileged, Sonnenberg has known many celebrities, founded a journal--Grand Street--and had many romantic involvements.

This book gives an interesting account of his multiple sclerosis.

As memoirs go, this one is refreshing--the author is aware of his own failings.

21 March 1999



Do I keep reading Muriel Spark's fiction because I keep hoping that the vast critical acclaim she's received will turn out to be warranted?

This novel is set mainly in 1945 but often we are told what has become of the characters years later.  Most of them are women in a rooming house just as World War 2 is winding down.  

We follow several of them in a superficial way as some events unfold, mostly involving one of the young woman who devises a way to squeeze herself through a narrow space to get onto the roof--and a tryst with a lover. Another young woman is constantly giving elocution lessons on the premises--a device that allows the author to lard her slight story with quotations from Gerard Manley Hopkins and other literary figures.

Very thin.

23 July 2014


Maybe I'm just not a Muriel Spark fan. In this novel, set in London in 1954 but going forward for several decades, I kept hoping that the narrator (Mrs. Hawkins or Nancy) would be revealed as unreliable. But the novel ends, and Nancy has bagged herself a doctor husband, and all is well in Sparkland.

The story begins in a rooming house, with Nancy one of the roomers. The others conveniently include a single medical student, whom we're inclined to ignore for a while because he's overshadowed by several more dramatic roomers. But suddenly he and Nancy are an "item," and away we go--into an ordinary romance.

Until that point I thought that the story might be about to have something to say. Alas, it didn't. Much of the plot revolves around an insulting remark that Nancy, who is an editor, flings at an author she detests. She calls him a "pisseur de copie," and his unsuccessful attempts at persuading her to retract this remark constitute a large part of the plot.

She refuses, and she is clearly proud of her ability to stand her ground. I kept wishing she'd see the remark at what I suspect it of being: an attempt to get away with a vaguely naughty insult while showing off a command of French.

As years pass and she keeps on in this vein, she becomes increasingly tiresome. And a novel that began promising some mysterious elements dwindles down into something mediocre.

7 November 2009


This is a short novel about a woman--who is probably crazy--who seems to foreknow her own death.

7 December 1998



This is a cynical account of the legal profession, by a lawyer. Good book!




This novel has a somewhat predictable plot about a childless woman transplanted to Vermont who becomes involved with Megan, a troubled ten-year-old whose mother has died and whose stepmother doesn’t seem to want her.

28 August 2000



This delightful book is an investigation into the aesthetic experiences of young children.  It is replete with references to works of art, literature, and music, with a bibliography running to six pages,  and yet it is by no means pedantic or dull in the way so many works based on substantial scholarship are.

The author draws on her own experiences, both as a child and as an adult dealing with children.

Her point is that every child deserves to have a rich aesthetic life.

She is particularly persuasive in the section of her book entitled "What Is Too Scary?"  She confronts some knotty problems:

      [I] wonder whether we should, then, let children know that the United States of America, in addition to aiding other countries generously has been directly and indirectly responsible for wars and for coups d'état all over the world that have brought untold suffering to innocent people. Or should we continue to keep this information hidden from them? And if so, for how long? What about religions? Every major world religion has been responsible for hostilities toward outsiders and guilty of aggression, however subtle, toward members of its own. Should we present these facts to children, and if so, how?

On the whole, though, this book is not a polemic. It is emphatic in the points it makes but not dogmatic or didactic.

There is an extensive discussion of the death of Bambi's mother in the Walt Disney film, for instance, that sheds light on why many children find this incident troubling.

The book has eight chapters. The one entitled "Children's Rooms, Sites of Refuge, and Being Lost" stresses how important it is for a child to have a place of refuge--a room, a closet, or maybe just a homemade tent  made by throwing a sheet over a table.

This is a well constructed and well written work, filled with observations and valuable insights.


This close examination of a number of popular children's books is full of important nuggets of observation.  The author deals with books that first appeared in the 1930s as well as with quite recent ones.  She is enthusiastically in favor of Maurice Sendak and of perennial favorites like Goodnight Moon and Bedtime for Frances.

She gives considerable attention to the "gendering" of the children's stories she is discussing--and to racial stereotyping that crops up in some of them.  I would have liked to know her opinion of the Uncle Remus stories, but they aren't among the works analyzed here.

She ends the book with a detailed analysis of Little Black Sambo--including two new revised versions of this story that attempt to cleanse it of its racist elements.

I have one reservation about this book. In discussing There's a Nightmare in My Closet (1968) the author is troubled by the reappearance of a dreaded monster at the very end of the book, but in summarizing the story she seems untroubled by this part: "Armed with a helmet and toy gun, he threatens to shoot the beast when it emerges."

Guns (even toy ones) and shooting threats ought not to enter into stories for children, in my opinion. Yes, they are unfortunately part of real life, but when are we going to start getting them out of our lives? A good place to begin would be the activities and diversions we provide for our children. 

Maybe the author left her feelings about guns out of the discussion because she was trying to make an entirely different point--one concerning the open-ended way the story ends on a note that would trouble many children.

The author has made a thorough and conscientious study of a number of children's books and has applied her perceptions to the way in which the books work on their readers. She considers not just the plot line but the way each page appears---the placement of the pictures, the details in the pictures, whether words or phrases are repeated or positioned in particular ways. 

She emphasizes the child's need to build a private space, particularly in her discussion of Where the Wild Things Are.  This strikes me as an important observation, and it would be interesting to know whether children who must spend their childhoods sharing a bed and probably everything else with siblings are more or less intent on creating a private space than are children lucky enough always to have their own room.

This book deserves a careful reading--and rereading.




     ANGLE OF REPOSE (1971)

The author insists that this is a work of fiction, but it has the feel of a work that is at least semi-autobiographical. A bit of Internet prowling turns up a Webpage where a biographer of Stegner discloses that the author took entire passages from the diaries and letters of a real-life person, probably an ancestor--quite possibly the grandmother of the fictional narrator, Lyman Ward. 


Would this be plagiarism? I'm no authority on the subject, and Lyman Ward makes it clear that he's quoting from his grandmother's writing.

Still, the question of the real-life person whose words they were remains...

It is an interesting story, constructed as two parallel narratives, one in the narrator's present, the other in the 1870s-1890s as he tries to reconstruct his grandparents' lives.

His grandfather was a mining engineer, his grandmother a transported Easterner and a Quaker concerned with bringing "civilization" to the West--California and Idaho, mainly.  The story isn't a "Western" in the usual sense but it is clear that guns and if necessary hanging are freely resorted to--and entirely justifiable in the opinions of everyone in the story, with the possible exception of Susan, the woman at the center of the story.

Just where the narrator stands (and where the author stands) isn't entirely clear, but the guns and spurs and the cruelty and ruthlessness that won the West are very much a part of this story, and the reader has to deal with them.  The tone in this connection is a bit too worshipful for my taste.  The way the West was won doesn't appeal to me. Too many innocent people--especially the Native Americans--were viciously plowed under.

And what are we to make of a passage toward the end where Lyman Ward (the narrator), describing a friend of his, says:

 ...the eyes, which had been rolling and changing back of the lenses like the eyes of nigger-baby dolls you used to throw baseballs at in county fairs,...

There is no excuse for the use of the word nigger here.  None. And why are we being reminded of this disgusting feature of county fairs? Admittedly, Stegner may be trying--as the book nears its close--to undercut his narrator by revealing his shortcomings, but why does blatant racism have to be among them? He has enough as it is, and the book isn't "about" race except in touching upon the presence of Chinese laborers in the mining camps.

18 August 2010


   LETTERS, VOL. 4: OCTOBER 1882-JUNE 1884, ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew (Yale University Press, 1995)

This volume in the series of R. L. Stevenson letters can be read most meaningfully after reading the preceding volumes, of which I've read only one.

Writing at a time when letters were the principal means of communication between persons too remote for face-to-face contact, Stevenson was a prolific correspondent--though writing was clearly very difficult for him at times on account of his attacks of what was probably pulmonary tuberculosis. In the two years covered by this volume, he suffered several severe hemorrhages and an attack of near-blindness.

His loyal wife Fanny, along with financial help from his parents, must have rendered immeasurable aid to Stevenson, who was struggling to make a living by writing. Childless, he was a stepfather to at least one of Fanny's children by a previous marriage as well.

The letters, written when Treasure Island and A Child's Garden of Verses were being published, cast considerable light on these two books as well as on several other works of Stevenson's--including even a poem deemed too raw for some publications ("The Canoe Speaks").

His command of French and of the Scots dialect must have been superb, for he sprinkles his letters liberally with both. He indulges in puns and breaks into verse at times. All in all, in spite of his suffering, he is determined to have a good time living.

A racist verse which he recalls as current in his childhood is included.  There is no indication whether he approved of it but he thought it worthy of inclusion in one of his stories. The editors could not have deleted it, nor perhaps should they have. But it made Stevenson's work less appealing to me. Yes, racism was part of the atmosphere of the time, and quite possibly no white person was free of it.

One can't expect every artist to be "politically correct" even before the concept of political correctness had come into being. Still, the Civil War had been fought in the US, and Stevenson had lived in the US for a while. He has to have been aware of the evils of slavery and racism. I have trouble getting past this one viciously racist rhyme.

27 July 2011



Written by a psychologist, this brief book is mainly a showcase for several "composite" cases (real cases well disguised to conceal the identities of the real people involved) who are singled out as examples of sociopathic personalities.

The author is fond of one statistic, though I'm not sure how authoritative it is: that 1 in 25 people will turn out to be a sociopath, a person without conscience. She proceeds to enlighten her readers by pinpointing some clues so we will know when somebody among the people we know is one of these born sociopaths. For example, the person might flatter us--we should be very suspicious. Or the person might try to engender our pity--another red flag. Beware of the person who is lying routinely. Beware of someone who seems more interested in controlling people or situations than in helping others.

So we have been given these guidelines. Interestingly, the author has a Website that leads you to lawyers and guardians ad litem who might help you if you feel that you're in the clutches of a sociopath. I tend to be suspicious of pop psychology, and this book is pop psychology. Little or no supporting data are cited to back up the author's claims.

However, she has probably done many people a service by warning us about several personality traits that are often treated too lightly. People are gullible--and do come under the spell of charismatic individuals who turn out to be pitiless and manipulative.

1 January 2009



The author, who is evidently now a composer of some renown, tells about her family: her lawyer-father, her schizophrenic alcoholic mother who died tragically, and her schizophrenic older brother, who also died tragically. In spite of the very sad content, the author tells her story with a wry humor.

16 July 1998



This is a remarkable memoir written by a Polish Jewish man who hid in Warsaw during the Second World War. By occupation a pianist, he had little to do with the piano during those years, when he barely survived. With the rest of his family having been sent off to a concentration camp, he was quite aware of what his fate would be if he were found. Even after Warsaw went up in flames, he was hanging on by a thread in burned-out building, with virtually no shelter from the fallling snow and with almost no food.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this memoir is that a German captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, was instrumental in saving Szpilman. He brought him provisions in his hiding place and made it clear that he found the Nazis' behavior loathsome--even while continuing to be a captain in their military.

The tables were turned when Poland was liberated and Captain Hosenfeld was a Soviet prisoner, needing someone to rescue him from the prison camp. Szpilman was unfortunately unable to find Hosenfeld.

But in his book--which he actually wrote just after the war's end--he includes Hosenfeld's journal, a remarkable document in its own right.

--This book has been made into a movie, which I haven't yet seen.

21 February 2008

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