NEW YORK IN THE '50S (1999)
The author’s interesting recollections of New York in the fifties, when he was writing for The Nation. He includes reminiscences of Calvin Trillin, Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Meg Greenfield, and Norman Mailer.
THE SECOND AMENDMENT: A BIOGRAPHY (2014)
Written by a lawyer, this balanced account of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes a strong case for reconsidering the changes that have taken place between the time when it was written and the present.
The author explains how an "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution has been in vogue recently--and demonstrates how sticking closely to the original intention of the framers, insofar as that can ever be determined, is not going to produce results that will benefit our world as it is today.
Waldman piles up considerable evidence to show that (a) firearms ownership was understood in the 18th century to be the prerogative and the duty of every white man in a community, as a means of defending that community (the "well-regulated militia"), (b) those firearms were very carefully controlled and monitored, and (c) since the 18th century, firearms have changed far beyond the scope of anyone's imagination.
Common sense would seem to dictate that weapons as lethal as today's firearms are should never be anywhere near children--or near adults whose ability to use them properly (and that would be most adults in the opinion of many) is open to question, and yet now this country is seeing a relaxation of its gun laws.
Much of the discussion in this book revolves around the 2008 Supreme Court Decision in Heller v. District of Columbia stating
that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home. It was the first Supreme Court case to explore the meaning of the Second Amendment since United States v. Miller(1939). [from the Encyclopedica Britannica Website]
Waldman maintains that the Heller decision, an instance where the "originalist" interpretation prevailed, has done incalculable damage and badly muddied the waters in terms of a clearer understanding of the Second Amendment.
He points out that the National Rifle Association and other powerful pro-gun interest groups have repeatedly brought pressure to bear on legislators, using deceptive tactics.
On this hot-button issue it is difficult for any author to remain objective but my impression is that Waldman has tried to be fair and present both sides of the dispute even though it is clear that he himself doesn't believe that every citizen has a right to own a gun.
6 March 2016
BLACK, WHITE, AND JEWISH: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SHIFTING SELF (2001)
The author is the daughter of the well-known author Alice Walker, who wrote the novel The Color Purple. Rebecca Walker's father is a lawyer who was active in the Southern civil rights movement.
This is an interesting autobiography, bringing Rebecca's life up to early adulthood. She focuses on the difficulties she has faced as a person of mixed racial background--and as a child of divorce.
She was ensnared in a divorce settlement that stipulated that she spend two years with one parent, then two years with the other, alternating back and forth between two geographical locations throughout her childhood. This must have made for transitory relationships with friends and schools.
Looking at the facts of her life as she presents them, any reader would have to acknowledge that she has grounds for complaining--and yet this is not a complaining whine of a book. She never criticizes her parents. But they seem to have developed an indifference towards her as time went on that borders on neglect. Her father remarried and started a new family, and her mother became a famous writer--increasingly inaccessible to her daughter, one feels.
In general, this is a well-written book, though I grew impatient with the author's practice of taking one sentence and repeating it anywhere from 15 to 40 times--a device that seems to serve as a way of making a transition from one chapter to another.
16 August 2007
WORD COURT: WHEREIN VERBAL VIRTUE IS REWARDED, CRIMES AGAINST THE LANGUAGE ARE PUNISHED, AND POETIC JUSTICE IS DONE
The author has been writing a column on English grammar and usage for The Atlantic for some years, and this book is a collection of some of her columns, which include questions from readers and her replies.
Her readers seem to be far more inclined to be prescriptive about grammar and usage matters than she is. She takes a much more permissive approach than most of the letter-writers, often coming down in favor of a belief that in this ever-changing language, just about anything goes.
Not always, though, and her views seem sensible and logical. However, among the references she finds most useful she cites the original edition of H. L. Mencken's American Language, which appeared in the 1930s, and fails to mention the updated 4th edition (1963), edited by Raven I. McDavid. Since this new edition was widely praised among scholars in the field of dialectology, this omission seems odd.
A FIGHTING CHANCE (2014)
For decades Elizabeth Warren has been fighting for the interests of ordinary Americans, the people who are often hardest hit by the predatory practices of banks and large corporations. In this book she tells her life story, with an emphasis on how she developed her zeal for defending and insuring the rights of consumers.
It hasn't always been easy for her. Obstructionist tactics have been used against her by politicians and lobbyists representing the entrenched interests of the powerful banking industry. She doesn't whine about having been victimized repeatedly but what comes through in her book is that changing or designing legislation and organizing teams of people who will support and promote it are jobs that take patience and perseverance--and toughness.
There was a time when she was attacked for having falsely claimed Native American ancestry in order to gain an advantage academically. Though she doesn't come up with definitive proof of her Native American background, she makes a very persuasive case for it--and unequivocally states that she never used it for her own advancement.
While giving details about her own life and career, the book also provides some excellent discussion of the appallingly powerful banking industry--the banks that have been "too big to fail" have also been "too big to jail," as she puts it.
Moreover, this recorded book was narrated by the author herself. If she blows her own horn sometimes in this book, she's one of the few people on the contemporary scene who probably ought to be blowing her own horn even louder. More power to her.
18 October 2015
DANCING WITH STRANGERS: A MEMOIR (1998)
These are the recollections of a black man who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1940s-1950s and who eventually became a writer for the New York Times. His account of life as a college student and fraternity brother at Colgate University is revealing.
He provides excellent commentary on the race dilemma in the U.S. Watkins believes that "race" is not a valid concept and should be abandoned.
16 June 2000
GONE TO EARTH (1917)
This is a beautifully written book, and I can tolerate the author’s intrusive preachments when I consider the effect of the book, which is having an even more powerful impact on me now than it did years ago. The way the story is constructed—with the central character, Hazel, married to a minister who loves her but is too “pure” to impose himself on her (it may have been many a gentleman’s solution to the problem of birth control—how else but by abstinence could he spare his wife the likelihood of child-bearing with all of its responsibilities?)—means that the reader has to be at least partly sympathetic when Hazel is attracted to Reddin.
The book seems to imply that women have passions as strong as men’s. Darwin’s ideas may have affected Mary Webb for what looks like a deeply pessimistic Darwinist strain runs through this book.
Gone to Earth is lush in its approach to the natural world in all its richness but is austere and full of foreboding in its philosophical orientation, which seems distinct and in no way muddy or obscure.
The author wasn’t mucking around in half-baked notions or pandering to a public demand for sensationalism. She had something to say, and she said it, and never mind if Reddin and Edward prove to be, by the end of the book, primarily mere symbols of good and evil. Hazel’s fate is so shattering that they almost seem appropriately relegated to the category of symbols.
2 February 1986
WEINER, HOWARD L., MD
CURING MS: HOW SCIENCE IS SOLVING THE MYSTERIES OF MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS (2004)
The author has been an MS neurologist for 25-30 years and has written numerous research articles on MS. He sets forth 21 points--a breakdown of the knowns and the unknowns about MS and discusses the treatment options currently available (though the book appeared before Tysabri came along). The book includes a glossary and is written in easily comprehensible language.
Some sample chapter titles: "Viral Origins," "Plasma, Placebos and Clinical Trials," "Chemotherapy for MS," "T-Cells and Tolerance," "Copolymer 1," "Inflammation vs. Degeneration," and "Going for the Cure."
20 July 2007
WEINER, TIM et al.
BETRAYAL: THE STORY OF ALDRICH AMES, AN AMERICAN SPY (1995)
In 1994 the news was sometimes dominated by the unfolding story of revelations about Aldrich Ames, who was unmasked as a mole in the US espionage system--a CIA "operative" who sold US secrets to the KGB, thereby enriching himself substantially.
There is a very grim aspect to this ugly story: Many KGB agents whose covers Ames blew were killed under the cruel system of the USSR. Ames and his cooperative wife Rosario were apprehended after an incredibly long period (many years) during which Ames succeeded in his efforts.
Even more surprisingly, Ames was not an especially dedicated or intelligent agent. He was inclined to be lazy and to goof up--and he was often alarmingly drunk.
The story amounts to a damning indictment of the workings of the CIA.
27 January 2006
AMERICAN TABOO: A MURDER IN THE PEACE CORPS (2004)
This is presumably a factual account of a case that had hardly any news coverage at the time (1976). A Peace Corps volunteer in the Pacific Island country of Tonga, a young woman named Deb Gardner, was brutally stabbed to death by a young male Peace Corps volunteer, Dennis Priven.
Although the evidence of Dennis's guilt is massive, Dennis escaped being hanged (the punishment for murder in Tonga), being imprisoned, and even the sentence that was ultimately handed down for him--being incarcerated in a mental institution in the US.
How this came about is the subject of this book, which has so many details that it is difficult to follow at times. This is an interesting study in bureaucratic snafus--and in the alarming zeal with which the Peace Corps succeeded in burying this case, apparently for the sake of keeping the image of the Peace Corps wholesome enough for it to remain a viable organization.
WELCH, H. GILBERT
LESS MEDICINE, MORE HEALTH: 7 ASSUMPTIONS THAT DRIVE TOO MUCH MEDICAL CARE (2015)
The author is a professor at the Dartmouth Medical School and has obviously given considerable thought to the question of how medical care is used in the United States. He sees a system with serious flaws--some of which are attributable to Americans' overuse of medical care.
Doctors are encouraged by the current system to order up tests and more tests and to perform procedures and surgeries that can do so much harm that they're unjustified, and patients are often scared by media hype into going along with whatever the doctors recommend.
The author sees particular problems in the way breast cancer and prostate cancer are often overdiagnosed. He sees no need for an annual physical exam to consist of many tests and very little face-to-face time between doctor and patient--as all too often happens.
These are just some of the eminently sensible recommendations in this excellent book, which makes its points succinctly and clearly. The author is strongly in favor of leaving well enough alone when it comes to the human body. He says: "The passage of time can have both diagnostic and therapeutic value."
Occasionally he indulges in trendy language, as in his use of "way" in "... is way more technically challenging," but this is a book that many people should read before they report for their next medical procedure.
18 July 2016
THE BULGARI CONNECTION (2001)
I liked The Bulgari Connection more than I've liked some of Weldon's other fiction. Weldon loves to pillory certain types of people, and here she's especially adept at targeting the rich, the shallow, those whose main goal is to impress the powers-that-be.
A little Googling reveals that this book caused a stir at the time because Weldon received "wheelbarrows of cash from Bulgari" (as Alex Clark in a review in The Guardian in October 2001) in exchange for mentioning Bulgari twelve times in her novel.
It's a very funny book anyway, and the reader has to loathe Doris Dubois, the femme fatale who lusts after Bulgari jewelry as well as after much else, and has to enjoy the ambiguous ending where Doris is finally brought down.
While she's at it, Weldon takes aim at the ephemeral quality of most art, in spite of its claims to timelessness. The painting that plays a large part in the story is clearly not such a good painting to begin with, but what happens to it as a result of Doris's machinations and the artist's willingness to go along with them is hilarious.
One of Weldon's better efforts, in my opinion.
4 April 2009
PART OF THE FURNITURE (1997)
Mary Wesley, a British author, began her writing career at the age of 70. The action in this novel takes place mainly during World War 2, with a strange combination of circumstances that involves a young girl in an entire new life--and an unlooked-for pregnancy. Although the plot is predictable, and the author tends to rely too heavily on the tired device of having the crusty old character turn out to be a warm-hearted softie, there is a lot of wry humor in this gentle, well-written story.
18 June 2005
A murder mystery set in Colorado and involving Alan Gregory and his wife Lauren, who has multiple sclerosis, as well as a woman FBI investigator, who also has MS. Neither of these multiple sclerotics seems much impeded in carrying on a demanding career.
The story isn’t bad, but I lost interest when the shooting and the gory details began.
9 May 2003
WHITTEMORE, KATHARINE AND MARZORATI, GERALD, EDS.
VOICES IN BLACK AND WHITE: WRITINGS ON RACE IN AMERICA FROM HARPER'S MAGAZINE, 1850-1992 (1992)
This is a collection of pieces on race in America that ran in Harper's Magazine over several decades. Included are pieces by Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, among many others. The Reverend Jesse Jackson's remarks (in a dialogue with Charles Murray) seemed especially pertinent, particularly this: "'We must whiten the face of poverty. It's an American problem, not a black problem." Facts are presented showing that the majority of US poor people are white--a fact that is often overlooked in the ongoing discussion of African-American poverty.
8 November 2010
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (1998)
This is an interesting account of the sad but productive life of a major contributor to the monumental Oxford English Dictionary-- an insane murderer who lived in an asylum in Britain--though he was originally an American who had been in the Civil War.
THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING: THE STORY OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (2003)
The story of the celebrated Oxford English Dictionary, ably told by Simon Winchester, is meant to be a companion volume to his earlier book, The Professor and the Madman, which focuses on one of the more eccentric contributors to the immense project.
It was a project that took many decades to complete, and its financial and editorial problems were often nearly overwhelming. These problems are documented carefully here, and we are given capsule versions of the personalities involved.
Anyone familiar with the OED would have to agree that the story of its creation deserves to be told well, and Simon Winchester has given the world an account that pays tribute to this monumental work and to the "harmless drudges" (to use Samuel Johnson's definition of lexicographers) who labored in obscurity to make it possible.
14 November 2006
HAWTHORNE: A LIFE (2003)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died during the Civil War, was most definitely not an abolitionist. He wasn't exactly pro-slavery--but he believed that slavery was better than any alternative would be. The wrongheadedness of this stance will (I hope) seem obvious to anyone by now, but Hawthorne is still a force to be reckoned with because of his writings, which have always been taken seriously--unlike, say, Melville, who had an uphill battle to have his work given a fair hearing in his lifetime.
This biographer doesn't attempt to gloss over Hawthorne's politics. In fact, by the end of this biography, the reader may be starting to entertain the notion that maybe Hawthorne wasn't as great a writer as we've been told he is--and that much of the acclaim he received came about as a result of his lifelong close friendship with the likes of Franklin Pierce.
A case can be made for this although Wineapple is careful not to make it. She treats all of his works with considerable respect. She comes close to saying that some of the devices Hawthorne typically uses--the minister's black veil, Hester's resplendently glowing embroidered "A," and other paraphernalia that crop up in his fiction--are almost wheezily gothic.
She lets the reader in some interesting facts along the way. While living in England, the Hawthorne family, consisting of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne and their three children, employed a staff of a housemaid, nursemaid, cook, and gardener. This was a family used to living comfortably in spite of some less prosperous periods.
Also, the Master of Arts degree Hawthorne received from his alma mater, Bowdoin College, was available simply by paying a fee. He did not have to sign up for courses, attend classes or lectures, write papers, or take exams. That is how it was done at the time, or so Wineapple implies.
This seems like a thoroughgoing scholarly study of Hawthorne's life, complete with an ample number of photos. I would have liked to know more about the three Hawthorne children, however.
Sometimes I had problems with Wineapple's choice of words. Saying that Hawthorne's daughter Una "had crashed" when a diagnosis of "galloping consumption" had been added to her case of malaria struck a jarring note, for instance. The use of the colloquial "crashed" isn't specific enough for this situation, which cries out for precision, it seems to me.
But that is a small point. On the whole the book was absorbing and well done.
9 HIGHLAND ROAD
The author spent two years studying a group home. His book puts an odd overemphasis on a presumed case of multiple-personality disorder in one of the residents.
THE MYSTERY OF LEWIS CARROLL: DISCOVERING THE WHIMSICAL, THOUGHTFUL, AND SOMETIMES LONELY MAN WHO CREATED ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
The mania for absurdly long book titles seems to have affected this author severely, but aside from the title length, this is a very readable and fair account of the life of C. L. Dodgson/Lewis Carroll.
Lewis Carroll was not primarily an author of children's books. He was a mathematics instructor--and is also known for some contributions to mathematics.
Photography was just evolving in Carroll's lifetime, and he was a very enthusiastic photographer though the process involved transporting a considerable amount of equipment around.
Jenny Woolf describes his photography efforts in detail and is at pains to demonstrate that, given Carroll's situation and upbringing and the styles in photography at the time, the photos of nude little girls that he took by no means suggest that he was a pedophile or even that he was overly attracted to young girls.
Indeed, the photos I have seen--and I don't know if these were all of them--hardly seem to warrant any brouhaha at all. Not one of them could be called provocative.These are pre-pubescent girls, many of them draped, and not one in a suggestive pose.
The biographer's point about Carroll is that, the eldest son of a vicar, he was devoutly religious throughout his life so far as anyone has been able to determine. The child, particularly the young girl, was idealized at the time as the quintessence of innocence, as anyone familiar with Romantic poetry can attest.
Carroll also believed that draping the human form was almost sinful as it was covering up God's handiwork. However, in compliance with the mores of the time, all but a few of the many photos taken by Carroll are heavily draped.
Woolf also points out that of the young girls whom Carroll photographed, most remained in contact with him and on friendly terms for many years into their adulthood, and not one account of any improper advances on Carroll's part has come to light.
She does have to deal with the fact that some of Carroll's personal records and diaries, covering over a decade, were apparently destroyed by his survivors. She speculates on many possible reasons for the destruction of the records and concludes that since we can't know the reasons and there is no other evidence of his pedophilia, we cannot make assumptions about him.
It is regrettable that she has had to spend so much time explaining away the scandal-mongering charges that have been made. Even so, this seems to be a thorough account of the life of this remarkable literary figure.
18 May 2014
THE VOYAGE OUT (1915, 1920)
I found this to be a far less successful novel than the later To the Lighthouse. Here Woolf hasn't yet hit her stride. She peoples the stage with entirely too many characters, with the result that none of them comes alive, and she even has trouble keeping them straight.
Richard and Clarissa Dalloway put in an appearance here, and so we get a look at the Mrs. Dalloway of the later novel of that name. But they fade away in The Voyage Out, as do many other of the assorted characters.
There is some biting wit here, but the one-dimensional characters often seem merely to be emitting bons mots into very thin air.
That the author deflects our attention onto the more secondary characters right after the death of Rachel Vinrace perhaps shows that she didn't intend for the novel to be about death. But what point is she making after such a protracted death scene? That life goes on anyway?
It's as if she didn't quite know where to take this story, and so it veers off in several directions at once.
21 August 2012
MRS. DALLOWAY (1925)
Supposedly Virginia Woolf has stated that she wasn't influenced by Joyce's Ulysses in the writing of this novel, but there is evidence that she was reading it at about the time when she was working on Mrs. Dalloway. In any event, it's a strange coincidence that another stream-of-consciousness novel about a single day in June and revolving around the lives of a few characters some of whom never meet one another happens to have been written, this time by a woman, and this time about London, not Dublin.
However, influenced or no, Virginia Woolf has spoken up with a voice that is very much her own here.
Clarissa Dalloway, who is about 50, is preparing to give a party, and the novel closes with that party. It is the story of her reunion with her old lover, Peter Walsh, who has been away in India for years and who is now married, probably divorcing and probably remarrying.
There are parallel stories spinning out on the same day--especially that of Septimus Warren Smith, a troubled young man with an Italian wife. He is told that he must be separated from his wife and committed to a hospital, and the eminent doctor who makes this pronouncement happens to be a guest at Mrs. Dalloway's party. In this way the news of the patient's suicide that day reaches Mrs. Dalloway--even though she doesn't know Septimus Warren Smith.
On one level her reaction is that of the seemingly shallow and frivolous giver of parties: How could the doctor bring up the subject of death at my party?
But on another level she is shaken to the core. It helps to know that the author intended for Septimus Warren Smith to be Mrs. Dalloway's "double"--and that he wasn't in the story originally, and that the story might have ended with Mrs. Dalloway's death.
The novel is a meditation on death and aging, and the song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, beginning "Fear no more the heat o' the sun...," runs through it as a motif.
But it is also effective in making the reader see that even the seemingly frivolous party-giver isn't necessarily a dissipated self-indulgent person. Mrs. Dalloway thinks of her parties as a way of bringing her friends together so that they can enjoy being with one another. Looked at in this light, the giver of parties is a generous spirit indeed, for arranging a successful party involves considerable effort--all of which Mrs. Dalloway is quite used to and seems to enjoy.
I came away from this novel feeling as if I hadn't been nearly as grateful as I should have been to people I've known who've given parties.
I also came away feeling that the power to confine a mentally troubled person to an institution without that person's consent should never have been granted to anyone. Though Mrs. Dalloway confronts her own mortality in the course of this novel, she is also brought up against the power wielded by Sir William Bradshaw, the doctor at her party who has been instrumental in arranging for the commitment of Septimus Warren Smith.
The lyrical style often involves rich sea imagery--and parts of the book might almost be read as poetry.
29 September 2012
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (1927)
Virginia Woolf's style resembles an elegant tapestry. She picks up a tiny theme here, goes on to other topics, and then picks it up again later in the narrative--and that is how it goes throughout this intricately woven novel. Whether it is a dropped brooch or a parental remark to the effect that the weather isn't right for a planned trip to the lighthouse, these seemingly ordinary details start to matter intensely in Woolf's hands.
One such thread that is woven through, appearing only now and again but shining forth whenever it does, is a remark made by Charles Tansley that haunts the budding artist, Lily Briscoe--both of them being guests at the summer house belonging to the central couple in the story, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who are so important, apparently, that we aren't allowed to know their first names.
Tansley's remark was that "'women can't paint--women can't write.'"
It is fitting, or so it seems to me, that the novel ends with its focus on Lily Briscoe, who at last finishes the painting on which she has been laboring assiduously. "She had had her vision," the author tells us in celebration of that completion.
By then Mrs. Ramsay is dead, after having given the world eight children and having worked hard at the demanding tasks involved in running a large and prosperous household---such as keeping her family and many guests comfortable and acting as an intermediary between her children and their formidable, unyielding father.
This was in the Britain of the early 20th century, when gracious living was at its most gracious, and this must have been the world that the author knew best. The novel is no socially conscious diatribe against the subjugation of women, but it often seems to point the way toward later sentiments about the way women were treated in a world where they were expected to be primarily decorative.
Lily Briscoe is probably not a great artist, nor does the author intend for us to think she might be. The point is that she ought to have had a chance--to do her painting, to finish her painting, in peace without having to be wounded by put-downs from people who begrudged her that opportunity.
It's probably a mistake to find a "point" in this novel, however. The author may have intended for us to enjoy the beauty of its structure, which is truly remarkable, or of its perceptions, which are always surprising and original. Woolf intersperses traditional-length chapters with the occasional chapter consisting of just one sentence, for instance, but she does this so restrainedly that the effect is magnificent.
4 May 2012
REMEMBERING SATAN (1994)
This is a report of a case of alleged child abuse in Olympia, Washington, where two grown daughters supposedly recover repressed memories of having been sexually abused by their father and some male friends. The daughters' stories become increasingly bizarre and incredible as time passes, and eventually the father and his friends are said to have been involved in Satanic cult rituals.
The father was convicted and imprisoned for crimes he probably never committed.
14 November 1998
A FATHER'S LAW (posthumously published, 2008)
Shortly before his death, Richard Wright wrote the draft of an unfinished novel, and in 2008 his daughter published it. Whether the publication was a wise decision is open to question. Whether Wright himself would have wanted it to see the light of day in its present form is another big question.
Its flaws are many, its writing slipshod and often hackneyed. It is the story of a black policeman who becomes the chief of police in a Chicago-area neighborhood (or is it a suburb?) where there has recently been a series of murders, all apparently committed by one person.
Ruddy, the police chief, has a son who keeps to himself and studies all the time. Evidence pointing to the son as the murderer begins to mount, though by the end of this fragment of a narrative, the evidence seems shaky. The reader will wonder if Ruddy is a bit too quick to suspect his son.
But we will never know whether the son turned out to be the murderer.
It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that this book was published at all. Black Boy and Native Son are both powerful stories reflecting African-American experience. The chronology of the author's life, appended to A Father's Law, indicates that Wright's all-too-brief life was about as full of a wide variety of experiences as any person's could be. He knew the starkest and most stinging poverty for many years. Later he was to know many of the most remarkable people of his time and to have many opportunities and awards.
He deserved better than to have this draft published posthumously.
26 December 2010