DOUBLE FOLD: LIBRARIES AND THE ASSAULT ON PAPER (2001)
The author is very perturbed about the way in which libraries are rushing to put so many books and newspapers on microfilm and, in the process, destroying the original works. The libraries insist that they are doing this of necessity because microfilming a volume entails "disbinding" it and thus rendering it useless, for all practical purposes. Also, there is the process of "embrittlement," by which every book eventually becomes brittle and crumbles, or so the theory goes.
Baker points out that a microfilmed version is NOT an exact copy of the original, that the reader needs special equipment to read it, and that it is almost always much less readable than the original. He also disputes the notion, often stated in the library world in recent years, that books will "crumble" and turn to dust. He sets out to prove that the kinds of paper most books are printed on will never crumble or turn to dust. He stops just short of accusing librarians and archivists of conspiring to rid the world of books in their zeal to save space (and therefore money).
This is an absorbing and provocative book, written with wit and verve.
By the way, the author has bought up the runs of several US newspapers with his own funds and seems to have rescued them from the discard pile, for a while at least....
HOW TO LIVE WELL WITHOUT OWNING A CAR: SAVE MONEY, BREATHE EASIER, AND GET MORE MILEAGE OUT OF LIFE (2006)
The author is a journalist who is responsible for the HOW TO LIVE WELL series of books. I haven't read any other books in the series.
As I'm writing this, the local TV news is featuring a story about a deadly car crash in the vicinity. The accident-proneness of vehicles isn't a major point made in this book but it very well might have been.
The author makes a very persuasive case for living without owning a car. He acknowledges that a rented car can come in handy on occasion for some people, but he cites relevant statistics to show that the typical car-owner is spending entirely too much money and having entirely too many hassles in his life as a result of the "convenience" of owning a car.
He discusses the options: carpools, shared rides, public transit, bicycles, and walking. He gives exact references for additional information.
I was nearly one hundred percent in agreement with the points in this book. I don't share the author's enthusiasm for motorcycles as an alternative to cars, however. The noise they're responsible for is unacceptable, but that's just one person's opinion.
I've never owned a car and never driven one much either--so Chris Balish is preaching to the converted here.
This novel--said to be partly autobiographical--is the story of the downfall of one Wade Whitehouse, the narrator's brother, who works as a well-driller and the chief of police in a very small New Hampshire town.
Ironically, as Wade goes downhill in an alcoholic plunge into memory blackouts, paranoia, and typical impulsive displays of temper and volatility, one of his suspicions that is actually right on target is ignored by the community as they recoil from evidence of his deterioration: he has rightly surmised that a man's death during a hunting trip was no hunting accident but murder. So far as we know, the murder never comes to light.
In addition to being an absorbing (but grisly) story, this novel is a cri de coeur against the kind of bullying machismo that prevails in so many American male social relationships. The author focuses on hunting traditions, and his picture of hunting season in New Hampshire is horrifying.
3 July 2007
THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF: THE STORIES OF RUSSELL BANKS (2000)
This is a fine collection of stories, with many previously published stories now revised. They are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.
They are about working people in New Hampshire, chiefly, and in fact some of them are so brief that they seem as if they might have been fragments of a novel that never got written. Many of the stories involve the town of Catamount, New Hampshire, and a particular trailer park with a focus on specific characters--a man who lives on the ice every winter so he can fish through the ice, for instance.
There are often alcoholic husbands and fathers bumbling through their sad lives. There are divorces aplenty in these stories. One of the longest stories (and one of the best, in my opinion) is "The Guinea-Pig Lady," about the trailer park.
The last story in the volume, "Lobster Night," is grim indeed, but then Banks is not an upbeat writer.
A few of the stories have the quality of parables, and these became annoying for that reason. Sometimes Banks is too much like a sociologist. But on balance this collection was absorbing reading, true to life, sober and clear-headed.
Rather frankly racist and anti-Jewish novel, with two prefaces by T. S. Eliot, praising it to the skies. The plot doesn't hang together well, and the characters are devoid of motivation. Occasional patches of "poetic" writing, but still a shockingly overrated work.
12 February 1999
THE ELFISH GENE: DUNGEONS, DRAGONS & GROWING UP STRANGE (2007)
The author, born in 1964 in the UK, tells of his addiction to the role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons amusingly and self-critically.
So very amusingly, in fact, that the reader may not always be certain when he is giving out the truth or speaking hyperbolically.
Barrowcliffe analyzes the phenomenon of D and D addiction very insightfully, I think. He sees it as an instance of young males congregating, to the exclusion of most females, and therefore free to be as rotten to one another as their instincts led them to be.
--Which, it seems, was plenty rotten.
People who read this book would be well advised to have some prior familiarity with the game and with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. But even without that familiarity, I was able to get a detailed glimpse into the world of the D and D players.
23 July 2012
REBEL POWERS (1993)
This started out to be an interesting story about a Vietnam Air Force vet with a wife and two children who has to go to prison in Wyoming for stealing a typewriter. The first-person narrator for most of the story is seventeen-year-old Thomas, the older child, though when he wasn't present at a scene, he imagines what might have happened.
Lisa, the other child, is seven or eight years old but often makes comments that no child that age would make (in my opinion). Thomas himself often sounds like a much younger person in the dialogue, especially with his younger sister.
"Mother" (their mother) feels that they must move to the small town in Wyoming to be closer to their father during his two-year sentence, and much of the story concerns their train trip on the way west and some people they meet en route, notably one Penny Holt, who appears to be quite rootless and very much in need of a family to belong to. She attaches herself readily to "Mother," and Thomas eventually develops a crush on her though she's considerably older than he is.
They establish themselves in a boarding house in Wyoming where they have very little privacy--and where none other than Penny Holt turns up in search of them. She settles right in with their family, clinging to "Mother" as to a very close friend.
Penny had been going to Kansas to see her boy friend who was imprisoned for draft evasion (it is the late 1960s). That hasn't worked out, and so Penny is again at loose ends.
Before "Father" gets released from prison--long before the two years have elapsed--there is curiosity in the boarding house about why he is there, and a story gets started that he is doing time for protesting the Vietnam war. It is a lie that I kept expecting to become the center of interest in the story (what would happen when the truth came out?) because there is much heated discussion among the characters about what constitutes a "loyal" American and whether the Vietnam war is justified. However, the issue simply dwindles away, and the story rambles on without any further exploration of the question. In effect, the rest of the action goes forward as if the lie about "Father" were true.
If having lived a lie has anything to do with his tragic end, this isn't made clear at all. We aren't even sure whether he has ever found out about the falsehood.
"Father," upon release, is so shattered by his experiences (Vietnam, the US prison), apparently, that he's reduced to a very confused state--and has a drinking problem.
In the last part of the book, the author seems almost too eager to tie up the loose ends and wrap up the story. He seems to have ceased to care much about his characters by this time--after having piqued our interest in them.
On the whole, this is a sadly jumbled book.
BELIEVERS: A NOVEL AND STORIES (1997)
Among the stories here, I thought "Believers" was good. Some other stories dabble in magical realism, which isn't everyone's cup of tea.
4 September 1998
IRIS AND HER FRIENDS: A MEMOIR OF MEMORY AND DESIRE (1999)
The author, a novelist, discusses his relationship with his failing wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch--a disciple of the German writer Elias Canetti--as she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. A very touching portrait of a devoted husband trying desperately to do what he can in the face of his wife’s increasingly incomprehensible behavior (she is ultimately consigned to a "home," where she dies).
15 May 2003
THE NEW YORKER STORIES (2010)
A collection of 48 stories that appeared in The New Yorker between 1974 and 2006. Because many of the stories have the "New Yorker ending"--that is, no ending at all--they have a sameness that falls just short of getting monotonous when they are gathered together in a volume.
Many are slight, merely setting up a situation, then going nowhere. They are more like vignettes.
Beattie's characters tend to live in New York City or Virginia, drive cars, have partners who are leaving or have left, have difficult mothers, change careers, enjoy fine wines, have caterers, and get stoned. Even though many of them are creatures of privilege, the author makes them understandable and real. And often a story has dark overtones: a car crash, a dead child, AIDS.
"The Confidence Decoy" is an interesting sketch showing the interaction between a more educated person (a lawyer) and less educated ones (two movers with whom the lawyer is temporarily involved). The story is unified by the element of the confidence decoy, but we are constantly aware of the way in which the lawyer thinks he is communicating with the movers even though we suspect he isn't getting through to them, and the way in which the lawyer constantly misconstrues what the movers say.
THE DOCTOR'S HOUSE (2002)
This novel about a dysfunctional family involves a doctor who despises his wife and children. Eager to maintain his status as The Doctor, but womanizing almost to the point of obsession, he inflicts cruelty--mostly verbal but fiendishly brutal--on the members of his family.
The story starts out being told by Nina, one of the doctor's two children. She seems a bit too preoccupied with her brother's philanderings, about which we hear a great deal. Andrew, the brother, has been bedding down women he knew in high school at a rapid rate.
Other narrators, Andrew among them, give us the rest of the story. Gradually we learn about the doctor's wife's alcoholism and other horrors of this family, who are sad--and probably only too true to life.
8 November 2008
PARK CITY: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES (1998)
Interesting stories about contemporary people, though some of the endings dangle maddeningly. Some stories were published before in Secrets and Surprises and What Was Mine and elsewhere.
31 December 2001
BLUE SKY DREAM: A MEMOIR OF AMERICA'S FALL FROM GRACE (1996)
This is an interesting personal account of the author's experience growing up in the 1950s as a child of a Lockheed engineer in the aerospace industry enclave in California. Well-written and thoughtful, with reflections on the effects the decline in military spending has on the employees in that industry. This writer gives vivid and detailed pictures of important aspects of his childhood: Catholicism on his mother’s side; his father’s lapses into abusive behavior; the sameness of the suburb they lived in.
17 July 1999
SHOW ME A HERO: A TALE OF MURDER, SUICIDE, RACE, AND REDEMPTION (1999)
Lisa Belkin, who writes for the New York Times, was living in the general vicinity of Yonkers, NY, in 1992 and took an interest in an announcement of a lottery being held there for townhouse apartments in a new subsidized-housing development.
The construction of these 200 units, which would go to low-income residents (and everyone in Yonkers understood that the residents would be African-American or Hispanic), was possible only after a protracted four-year battle involving a judge, the mayor, and the people of Yonkers.
It seems a classic case of "NIMBY." In an effort to end a clear pattern of segregation, the housing was to be built in a middle-class, "white" area of Yonkers, much to the dismay of those who preferred the status quo.
Belkin focuses her attention on several persons involved in the conflict at the grass-roots level as well as on the very young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, and his wife. Several women whom the author writes about were applicants and eventual residents of the new housing.
The book is similar to There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, and the author expresses her indebtedness to that book.
People whose lives are too chaotic for them to be able to articulate their thoughts ought to have others speaking up in their behalf. Lisa Belkin--and Alex Kotlowitz and a few others--are trying to do just that.
It's about time.
15 January 2011
THE OUTERMOST HOUSE: A YEAR OF LIFE ON THE GREAT BEACH OF CAPE COD (1928)
Henry Beston deserves to be better known if this book is typical of his writing. A beautifully constructed and lyrically written paean to nature, it tells of his year spent in a cabin on Cape Cod. He was not trying to emulate Thoreau. He freely acknowledges that his cabin was moderately comfortable. He was trying to get a sense of the natural world as it developed throughout a year on Cape Cod.
He doesn't preach at us. In fact, I don't recall that he used the word "spiritual" once in this book. He doesn't philosophize. He observes and reports on what he sees--whether it's the no-see-ums or the piping plover.
I see that he has been compared to Annie Dillard, but Annie Dillard's writing can't begin to approach Henry Beston's.23 November 2007
MAEVE'S TIMES: IN HER OWN WORDS (2013)
This is a selection of Maeve Binchy's columns for the Irish Times, written over several decades. They include several amusing accounts of royal weddings, a dissection of Emily Post, and many pieces about people the author has met--the somewhat eccentric characters she has been fond of highlighting. There is even a short piece about her battle with ants.
28 February 2016
EVENING CLASS (1996)
Interesting novel involving an Italian language class.
26 December 1998
LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE (1982)
Good novel tracing the lives of two women, one Irish and one English, from the World War II years of their childhood through their subsequent romances, marriages, and widowhood.
23 November 1998
NIGHTS OF RAIN AND STARS (2004)
Sometimes I get cynical about Maeve Binchy and wonder if she has an eye on the movies in some of her novels. This is one of them. Set in Greece, which is always good for scenic shots (clear blue skies, the Mediterranean, ruins--who could ask for more?), its characters include a few Greeks who are almost too sage and perfect to be believable, especially the aging Andreas.
Several tourists--from England, Ireland, the United States, and Germany--are brought together in this part of Greece when a tragic boat fire kills 24 people, many of whom are known to the townspeople. All of the visitors are fairly young, and it turns out that all of them are running away from situations they found intolerable.
Soon their old lives are catching up with them, and decisions have to be made. It is astonishing how appropriately everybody behaves in this novel. It is as if they are marionettes whose strings are controlled by a crew of social workers. For things get wrapped up by the end of the novel, new pairings-off are transpiring, and a couple of long-gone sons are returning to the fold.
This novel has one very strong message: Families ought to stay close to one another. Families ought not to allow their closest relatives to stray far afield, no matter how great the lure of other parts of the world.
A very conventional message, to be sure, but Binchy presents the story in a tolerable way that is also enjoyable, even right down to the scenes with dancing Greeks that put one in mind of Zorba the Greek and other movies showcasing the Greek way of life.
2 April 2008
THE RETURN JOURNEY (1998)
This is a collection of Binchy short stories. I had never read any of her shorter works, and I have to say I prefer her novels.
These are interesting, quiet stories about families and relationships. But they are a bit thin and slight. I wish she had fleshed them out more.
18 November 2007
TARA ROAD (1998)
A fairly good novel about two troubled women who swap houses for a summer. One woman is an American who has recently lost her teenaged son, the other is Irish, and her husband has left her and the two children because he is involved with a much younger woman who is pregnant.
28 February 2000
A WEEK IN WINTER (2012)
Maeve Binchy has given us a long novel, populated densely by characters who have a connection, in one way or another, with a hotel that is starting up under the auspices of Chicky, an Irish woman who has lived in the US. There are those who have been in prison, those who drink too much, those who have to get married, even a couple who have served as doctors on board ship.
The stories move forward with the Irish lilt that is typical of Binchy's style, and we find ourselves acquainted with an assortment of lovable and somewhat eccentric people.
--Not too eccentric, though. Binchy makes it clear that isolated people who aren't team players are suspect. In her world you'd better be one of the fun-loving crowd. Women who are too keen on rules while being in charge of libraries or schools come in for her particularly withering scorn.
14 November 2014
CHESTNUT STREET (2010)
This is a posthumously published collection of stories about assorted characters, all of whom live on Chestnut Street, a semicircular street with some thirty houses.
Binchy's characters are often put-upon, taken advantage of, tossed about by chance, doomed to loneliness, but the author's relentlessly sunny view of the world has a way of rescuing them sometimes that seems all too tidy.
Some of the stories are very slight, little more than anecdotes, and in at least one--"Flowers from Grace"--Binchy seems to be straining too hard to teach a Lesson: Grace needs to loosen up and stop organizing everything.
But as always, Binchy spins a good yarn with interesting, realistic characters and situations.
4 September 2015
LEAVING A DOLL'S HOUSE: A MEMOIR (1996)
Interesting recollections by British actress Claire Bloom, who knew a number of famous men, including Charles Chaplin and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Much of the memoir concerns her husband of many years, the writer Philip Roth, and her objections to him are understandable and probably well-founded.
10 April 2004
TUBES: A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE INTERNET (2012)
The reader will come away from this exploration of the innermost workings of the Internet knowing that the entire globe now has vast collections of tubes and wires and fiberoptic cable, all being carefully taken care of (one hopes) so that human beings can stay connected by the new technology--a considerable improvement in speed and efficiency over, say, the telegraph, as the author points out.
Blum does not regard this phenomenon as anything to be alarmed about. In fact, he seems to consider it a good thing. Small towns in Oregon that used to depend on lumber for their livelihood now have data centers to provide employment, for instance.
20 July 2015
GHOST HUNTERS: WILLIAM JAMES AND THE SEARCH FOR SCIENTIFIC PROOF OF LIFE AFTER DEATH (2006)
Deborah Blum has undertaken a formidable task here but she has succeeded admirably. A problem confronting her must have been how to present William James in a favorable light without disparaging his long-lasting interest in psychical research and still treat the subject of psychic phenomena respectfully though not necessarily credulously.
William James, along with numerous other notable figures in philosophy, psychology, and even the "hard sciences," was interested in finding out how much truth lay in the claims of psychics, especially mediums and clairvoyants.
To that end, the American and British Societies for Psychical Research were founded, and many learned articles on the subject appeared in print. Some academics were dismayed that William James would have lent his name and time and energy to an enterprise that many regarded as crackpot and fraudulent.
This book will do nothing to settle the question of the legitimacy of psychic experiences, but that is not its aim. The jury is still out on the matter, anyway--even after the passage of a century. What it does do is explore the extent of James's involvement in the struggle for respectability that psychical research faced in the early 20th century.
To understand James's position on psychical research, one has to understand his insistence on remaining open to any and all ideas, no matter how wild they might seem--and Deborah Blum clearly does understand this. She does not waste time castigating the members of the scientific community who had only contempt for psychical research. She presents their views as simply another perspective on the matter.
She reveals some facts that may not have come to light up to now--among them, the lengths to which the investigators would go in their efforts to prevent their chosen mediums from cheating. They sometimes tied the medium up or subjected the medium to noxious stimuli in an effort to find out if her trance state was real. Perhaps surprisingly, the mediums hardly ever objected to all of the hoops they were made to jump through.
Another aspect of the studies comes out in Blum's description of some of the actual sittings or seances. These could become intimate in ways that went beyond Victorian mores. A medium might sit in the lap of one of the investigators, for instance. This sort of detail never found its way into William James's writings on psychical research so far as I know.
This was a fascinating account.
BOEHM, ERIC H.
WE SURVIVED: 14 HISTORIES OF THE HIDDEN AND HUNTED IN NAZI GERMANY (2003)
Originally published in 1949, this book presents fourteen accounts by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. The accounts contain enough specific detail about the situation in Hitler's Germany to give a chilling comprehension of the horrors involved in life under a totalitarian regime.
18 August 2008
A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE, MOSTLY (2003)
The author, who died in 2004 in his 80s, was an editor for the New Yorker magazine for some 40 years. This memoir is a briskly told account of his life there, with his World War II experiences thrown in for good measure.
As the stepson of the magazine's owner, Raoul Fleischmann, he was always open to the accusation of having obtained his position through his family connection. The extent to which this was true isn't made clear in the narrative, but he succeeds in diverting our attention to some of the "dirty little secrets" about the apparently close-knit New Yorker group.
By far the lengthiest account in the book concerns the disintegration of the author's close relationship with the editor-in-chief, William Shawn, as Shawn seemed stubbornly resistant to finding a replacement for himself. The portrait of Shawn is very unflattering indeed.
TO THE NORTH (1932)
To the North turns out to be a very bone-chilling title, but the reader will learn this only towards the end of the story, which advances in a very measured way to its conclusion, in which some lives become unravelled by the events of a few abrupt, unstoppable, harrowing moments.
In the end we are left to imagine what will happen next. The action of the story takes place in a world where everything can be meticulously planned and very little just happens in a spur-of-the-moment way.
Celia meets a man on a train, and they strike up an acquaintance. This happenstance event sets the rest of the story in motion, for it is Markie, the man Celia has met on the train, who is the catalyst.
How the author gradually shows Markie to us may be one of the most effective accomplishments of this novel. At first he seems pleasant and "acceptable" as someone fit to associate with the genteel and well-bred Emmeline and Celia and their set. But we start seeing interchanges between Markie and his sister--who is also his landlady--for instance, and later between Markie and a woman he knows that show him to be cruel and deceitful.
It is not that he is socially "beneath" Emmeline and Celia. It is that he is heartless. Though we can see that Emmeline and Celia are somewhat shallow and self-absorbed, still we can't help feeling that they should steer clear of this man.
Elizabeth Bowen's strong point here seems to be character development. She deftly delineates each character tellingly, using subtle brush strokes.
But in the catastrophic scene at the end she stumbles, I think.
But in the catastrophic scene at the end she stumbles, I think.
The scene seems painfully long.
I intend to reread this book. I'm not sure I've read it carefully enough the first time. Some writers deserve to be read with considerable care, and Elizabeth Bowen is one of them.
16 June 2010
ARC OF JUSTICE: A SAGA OF RACE, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND MURDER IN THE JAZZ AGE (2004)
The author, who is a historian, has written an account of a 1925 case in which the celebrated Clarence Darrow was the lawyer for the defense.
Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys and infant daughter, an African-American family, moved into a bungalow they had bought in an all-white area of Detroit. Ossian Sweet had had a difficult struggle to become a doctor and was keenly interested in establishing his family in comfortable surroundings. He also knew that there had been recent race-hatred incidents involving similar housing battles in Detroit. Getting wind of similar opposition to his family's move, he gathered nine friends and relatives (including two brothers) in the bungalow as the family was moving in. He showed them firearms he had accumulated in the event of serious trouble.
There was serious trouble. A mob of some 400-600 white people assembled outside the bungalow and began throwing rocks. A window shattered. Gunfire came from inside the bungalow--first firing above the crowd, then closer into it, and one man was wounded, another killed.
Eleven African-Americans, including Ossian and Gladys Sweet, were put on trial for murder, as a group. The NAACP and several prominent African-Americans were very involved in the case (W. E. B. Dubois, James Weldon Johnson, and others), and eventually Clarence Darrow agreed to work for the defense.
The carefully chosen jury (of 12 white men) couldn't come to a decision, and there was a mistrial. The second time around, Darrow insisted on having each of the eleven defendants tried individually. The first to be tried was the brother of Ossian's who was the only person to have admitted firing a shot.
He was acquitted at last, and this meant that the other defendants were also allowed to go free, but it was a long and emotionally stressful time for those involved, with the defendants having to spend considerable time in a Detroit jail.
Not long afterwards, Gladys Sweet contracted TB, probably during her stay in the crowded jail. It was transmitted to the Sweets' daughter, who died while still in infancy. Gladys Sweet also died, a few years later.
Ossian Sweet remarried a couple of times but then divorced. In the end, not yet an old man, he shot himself to death.
This is a very tragic story that sheds light on the disgraceful era when "restrictive covenants" were becoming common in the US housing market. The racism that has been rampant in the US housing situation for generations is still with us today in spite of some corrective legislation over the years.
13 May 2008______________________
BOYLE, T. CORAGHESSAN
SAN MIGUEL (2012)
The author delved into historical records for material for this novel, set on the rugged island of San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. The focus is on two families--the Waterses, who settled there in the 1880s, and the Lesters, who came along in 1930 and stayed until World War 2.
Marantha Waters and her husband Will, who was wounded at Chancellorsville, aren't well equiped for running a sheep farm, but that is what they are doing on San Miguel even though Marantha is very clearly dying of tuberculosis.
The very realistic descriptions of Marantha's physical state make for a compelling narrative. Boyle has made this woman's slow and horrible death from TB--and her heroic perseverance in spite of her suffering--vivid and horrifyingly compelling. The reader realizes without having to be told in so many words that this woman is utterly a prisoner.
Another woman who seems to have very few choices open to her once she and her husband arrive on San Miguel many years later is Elise Lester. This second part of the book, which could almost be two entirely separate novels, is much less successful than the first.
Herbie Lester, her husband, is gradually disintegrating into a form of dementia perhaps brought on by shell shock suffered during World War 1. He and Elise are just as ill suited for running a sheep farm as the Waterses before them. She is 38 and has spent ten years working in the New York Public Library. And yet she copes with the primitive situation, going on to bear two daughters.
Somehow Herbie and Elise seem a bit lackluster compared to the Waterses, and the two daughters, though often in the picture, are little more than cardboard figures, saying and doing typical things but having little individual personality.
The two stories are linked together only once, briefly, by the very slender connection of Jimmy, a hired boy for the Waterses who is still around when the Lesters come. He has a few memories of the Waterses that he shares, and these are never referred to again after they come up.
Maybe Boyle wanted to show us just two families of those settlers who inhabited the island over the years--without connecting too many dots.
He has told an absorbing story and done it well.
THE WILD CHILD: STORIES (2010)
An assortment of interesting stories, often with bizarre themes. "Admiral" involves the cloning of an Afghan hound. The longest story, almost a novella, "The Wild Child," must have been based on actual accounts of Victor, the "wild child" of Aveyron.
I kept wondering how closely the author followed the known facts about this child. There is an amazing amount of detail about how Victor behaved and how and what he ate.
TALK TALK (2006)
The plot of this novel revolves around identity theft. Dana Halter, a deaf woman who teaches, and her boy friend, Bridger Martin, are caught up in a chaotic mess, with Dana thrown in jail because someone has assumed her identity. A man named William Peck Wilson has been using the name Dana Martin--and living in high style, along with Natalya, his Russian girl friend and her daughter Madison.
Dana and Bridger set out in pursuit of the identity thief because they realize that the police aren't going to be of much help. After all, identity theft is a "victimless crime."
It's an exciting story, well told. The ending strikes me as unsatisfactory, however. It is jarring. The way William Peck Wilson behaves at the end isn't like the character we have seen up to that point. It's as if the author felt obliged to end the story but didn't quite know how. It seems slapdash.
And the story has all of the signs of a novel wanting desperately to be a movie--including a couple of car chases.
But it was interesting anyway, and the author presents the problems facing a deaf person with sensitivity and empathy even as he's moving the action-packed story forward.
WITHOUT A HERO: STORIES (1994)
These are absorbing stories, some parodic, most with humorous elements.
1 June 2001
BRAY, ROSEMARY L.
UNAFRAID OF THE DARK: A MEMOIR (1999)
The author has told her story and told it well--a story that needed to be told in this time when the needy are constantly being accused of laziness and other character flaws.
Rosemary Bray, born in 1955, was raised on the south side of Chicago. Her father was present in the household although his was a presence of dubious value, for, seething with rage against white people, he beat his wife and four children regularly. Rosemary and her mother and the other children lived in terror of his anger.
She never indulges in psychobabble in this narrative, never portrays herself as an abused child, as we so often find authors of memoirs and autobiographies portraying themselves. She just lays out the facts, along with her emotional responses to them. Her mother had to put the family on welfare even though there was a male "breadwinner" in the house. His "breadwinning" was sporadic--and he was a compulsive gambler.
When Rosemary was in 7th grade, she was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Francis W. Parker private school on Chicago's north side. She was plagued by mixed feelings about traveling to an entirely foreign part of town--a "whiter" part of town--for school and about associating with fellow students whose lives were radically different from her own. However, she survived her years at Francis Parker--and went on to undergraduate studies at Yale University, where she met the man she eventually married.
She became a book editor/reviewer for the New York Times.
This was a totally absorbing book.
14 October 2007
THE ROSE GARDEN: SHORT STORIES (2000)
The stories in this collection were almost all originally published in The New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s. They are quiet narratives, often with the non-endings that were part of the standard New Yorker style. The most successful ones, in my opinion, are set in Dublin. Others take place in New York.
The last several stories in the collection concern Bluebell, a dog, and just miss being slight and whimsical. The author clearly has a talent for describing animals in a perceptive and original way.
THE NUDIST ON THE LATE SHIFT (1999)
Aside from now being outdated, this collection of anecdotes about employees in the burgeoning Silicon Valley software industry does little except for giving the author an opportunity to rhapsodize over what he perceives as a breathtakingly awe-inspiring revolution in the way we communicate information. He also gushes repeatedly about the vast fortunes being made nearly overnight by some of the computer-savvy young men who make up most of that industry.
His style is so annoying that I can't say I enjoyed this book. He likes trendy expressions, and so we have "way cool," "studly engineers," and "paradigm shift," to name a few.
A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND (1988)
Told in the first person by one Rachel Kennedy, this is the story of her association with Heather, a younger woman who is the daughter of Rachel's accountant, Oscar.
This is probably meant to be a story with an unreliable narrator, but even if it isn't, and we're supposed to take Rachel as behaving in ways we can sympathize with, her motives for the close association with Heather remain murky.
Rachel appears to be a less-fortunate hanger-on in the prosperous circle of people surrounding Heather and her parents, and she perceives her continuing to be included in their circle as Heather's parents' attempt at providing their only daughter with a friend.
Rachel perceives her own role--we learn increasingly as the story proceeds--as something of a self-appointed advocate for Heather's parents, however. Heather marries a young man who (it is hinted) might be a homosexual, and the marriage falls apart shortly after the splendid wedding.
The hints at the young man's inadequacies, by innuendo but with no explanation of the facts, no real evidence, are troubling. But it is Rachel's version we are getting. She senses that Oscar, Heather's father, shares her doubts about the young man, but again, no more is done with this idea.
Heather, a taciturn and constantly poised young woman, doesn't seem especially inclined to like Rachel. When she leaves her marriage and promptly takes up with an Italian man whom she marries, with little or no intention of keeping up contact with her family in England, Rachel volunteers to go to Italy to try to persuade Heather to visit her very ill mother.
Rachel sees herself as carrying a torch for the values that Heather's family are desperate to maintain. After all, they have put a lot of effort into raising this one daughter, and now she is turning her back on them by marrying and living in a foreign country, taking up with her husband's family while letting her own sink or swim back in England. Where is her sense of familial obligation? Rachel will be the one to bring her to her senses.
I was struck by Heather's parents' sad acquiescence to the situation. They raised their daughter so that she could have the same opportunities for happiness that they had had, they said. The implication is that there were no strings attached to their parenthood.
But this goes right by Rachel. When she finds that Heather has accepted the gift of freedom that her parents have so generously given her--that she still loves her parents but wants her life as she has made it--Rachel is probably defeated once and for all so far as this relationship is concerned.
We never find out if she delivered the gifts to Rachel's mother as Rachel asked her to do. It is hard to say whether this omission was intentional on Brookner's part, or whether we are to believe that Rachel's failure to mention it is part of her somewhat addled view of the world.
Somehow this story doesn't quite come off. Heather is too perfectly poised, and Rachel's place in the group seems to vacillate. Sometimes she is a businesswoman who is doing fairly well, but at other times she is almost shrieking out her anger because people like her have to work hard all their lives while people like Heather's family have everything they want.
It isn't clear just where this novel is going.
13 January 2012
LEWIS PERCY (1989)
This novel is a reflective analysis of a marriage--specifically, a marriage entered into by Lewis Percy, a retiring scholar who frequents libraries, and a woman who seems right to him in spite of having a "disability" that appears to be primarily agoraphobia--and being encumbered by a protective mother and her long-term lover.
We watch as Lewis Percy's life is dominated by this trio, but as time goes by he gets lucky.
This is a happy story, and its surprise ending is still believable--and satisfying.
23 January 2012
A woman narrator recalls her aunt Dolly--her mother’s brother’s wife--an older woman of European background who exploits women, including the narrator, in her greedy quest for men and material things. This is aA surprisingly sympathetic study of a character, beautifully written.
5 September 1999
A PRIVATE VIEW (1994)
This novel concerns a man reaching retirement age but losing his best friend, with whom he had made retirement plans. There is a troubling encounter with a brassy and rude much younger woman who insinuates herself into his life by a scam involving her being "permitted" to stay in another tenant's flat in the building he lives in. Absorbing.
2 November 1998
ALTERED STATES (1996)
Told by a first-person narrator, this story is about a man whose wife has killed herself after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Alan Sherwood, the narrator, is selfish and egocentric, with a self-destructive but persistent yearning for a selfish and inconsiderate woman, Sarah, who eventually marries money, lives in France, and vanishes from Alan’s scene. It is hard to say just what the center of this novel is. Most of the characters aren’t especially likable.
1 September 1999
Thea May, 70, a widow living alone, extends hospitality to Steve Best, who is to be the best man for her American granddaughter’s wedding. The unsettling visit by Ann, the granddaughter, and her fiance, David, and the best man, with the revelation that the marriage has been necessitated by Ann’s pregnancy, leads Thea to come to terms with her aging and eventual death. Very good book.
18 February 2000
FALLING SLOWLY (1998)
This is a moderately bleak story about two aging sisters and the arrangements and rearrangements in their lives as their situations change. Miriam works as a translator, and her sister Beatrice has been an accompanist but loses her job and begins to show signs of failing.
Miriam carries on an affair with the handsome man who was designated to give Beatrice the bad news about her employment. We watch as Miriam becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts at holding onto her married lover.
The events in this story are sad, but Brookner depicts them with interesting insights and attention to nuances that give them an importance beyond being sad.
REPORT FROM PART ONE (1972)
Like Report from Part Two, this is a somewhat loosely assembled collection of reminiscences, poems, and letters, along with a considerable number of photos.
Here we get glimpses of the poet's childhood in Chicago, of her early years of adulthood, and of the breakup of her marriage. We see how large a role she must have played in the African-American arts scene in Chicago over many years. She was instrumental in organizing a writing workshop for some members of the Blackstone Rangers, a South Side gang, for instance. Her diligent and generous efforts at inspiring poetry-writing and an appreciation for poetry in children have been amazing.
She makes a strong case for her belief that integration is not the whole answer for African-American people. She herself believed in integration at one time but later abandoned it in favor of an interest in promoting African-American culture as an independent entity deserving far more respect than it was getting.
Hers is not an angry voice but a discouraged, resigned and realistic one. She feels integration has been too slow a process, with results that have only minimal significance. She believes that African-Americans have to see themselves as beautiful and assertively powerful before real progress can be made.
This book came out in 1972. Events of the last 39 years seem to be proving her right. Racial prejudice is still abroad in the land, sometimes hiding in corners and veiled, sometimes very much out in the open.
At one point in this compendium of interviews, snippets of poems, and memories she suddenly gives a brief but very graphic description of a Mississippi lynching. Placed as it is in the book, it can only shock the reader, and I suspect that her intent was to let this bit of grim reality pack as much of a wallop as possible.
24 June 2011
REPORT FROM PART TWO (1996)
Without having read Report from Part One, I may be in no position to judge this 1996 work, which is a compendium of some of Gwendolyn Brooks's poems and other writings, including quite a number of brief introductory speeches she gave in her capacity as poetry consultant for the U. S. Library of Congress.
Much of the writing here is "official." It was written for various occasions and has to say nice things about people. But there is a portrait of her mother that is quite readable, and some of the events in the life of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks have been remarkable and are described here.
There is a vignette involving the author Susan Sontag that shows Sontag in a very unflattering light.
As one of the pre-eminent African-American voices on the literary scene in the 20th century, Gwendolyn Brooks deserves to be taken seriously. In fact, all of her opinions in this collection are well worth reading. They are original, well argued and thoughtful. Her reflections on single parenthood, for instance, are outspoken and persuasive.
And, for the record, Gwendolyn Brooks dislikes the term African-American, preferring Black (with a capital B).
OVERTREATED: WHY TOO MUCH MEDICINE IS MAKING US SICKER AND POORER (2007)
The author, a reporter, has written a very persuasive book arguing that in the US, one reason for skyrocketing medical costs is simply that we expect too much medical care--far more than we really need. In fact, she maintains, with medical care less is often more--and she demonstrates how too much medical care can actually harm the patient, as when invasive medical procedures are done unnecessarily.
She sees the flaws in a system that encourages doctors to see as many patients as possible in a day and would like to see primary care doctors restored to their former status instead of disappearing from the scene. She sees many advantages in a system where doctors are salaried.
Like another author on this topic, Marcia Angell, MD, she deplores the creation of "new diseases" or "pre-diseases"--osteopenia being one of her examples. The rise to prominence of osteopenia (said to be early osteoporosis) as a "pre-disease" has led to widespread prescribing of somewhat risky drugs like Fosamax.
This is an excellent book, much needed just now, when the US health care system is being closely scrutinized and found to be seriously wanting.
KAFKA WAS THE RAGE: A GREENWICH VILLAGE MEMOIR (1993)
Broyard gives a terrible account of his life. He never met a sexual encounter he doesn't insist on including in this short work. The author is said to have been revealed as a "person of color" though he successfully concealed his racial identity all his life, and yet the subject of race is not touched upon in this book.
20 April 2001
THE SECRETS OF MARIKO: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A JAPANESE WOMAN AND HER FAMILY (1995)
The author, a Washington Post reporter, wanted to give a picture of the daily life of a typical Japanese woman, and--during an extended 1991 stay in Tokyo with her husband and children--she found Mariko Tanaka, 44, a housewife and mother who agreed to be interviewed for a year. With the help of an interpreter, the author carried on conversations with Mariko and her husband and three children as well as with Mariko's elderly parents, who lived in the same house.
Japan, which bans immigration, is still a very homogeneous society, and some features of its rigid, structured lifestyle are probably difficult for outsiders to understand.The author tells us that Japanese is among the most difficult languages in the world, and we catch glimpses of some of its difficulties when she tells of the special vocabularies that are used only in particular situations--"sublanguages" that exist within the main language but are reserved for certain purposes (when respect is called for, for instance).
Mariko works almost nonstop and rarely has a moment for herself--a situation probably common to housewives and mothers everywhere but taken for granted in Japan, where the men work till midnight in office jobs. Mariko's husband, a "salary man," seems typical, although the stress of such incessant work clearly takes its toll, for he occasionally disappears on drinking binges.
Mariko, in addition to being the chief cook and bottlewasher for her husband and children, helps with the care of her aging parents. She is active in the PTA and in local religious festivals. She works half-time as a meter reader, a job she enjoys for the opportunity it provides her to get out and meet other people.
Sometimes Elisabeth Bumiller describes Mariko's preparations for a family meal in detail, and we become aware of a diet that seems almost totally devoid of desserts but rich in seafood and vegetables.
Japanese politeness is celebrated the world over. In Japan courtesy takes forms that would strike a Westerner as extraordinary. For instance, there is the custom of staying in touch with your children's elementary school teachers year after year by having one of the class mothers be in charge of an annual get-together. This thoughtfulness toward a child's former teacher is also meant to provide a greater sense of continuity in the child's experience. This makes eminent good sense to me.
Elisabeth Bumiller has shown a fascinating world where the people lead their lives in a peace-loving, graceful, practical way. I found this book captivating from beginning to end.
7 April 2003
This novel set in upstate New York is about a campus cop whose marriage isn’t going well since the couple’s infant daughter was a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. Fanny, his wife, is a nurse. The couple are apparently unable to have another child and are finding the loss overwhelming. Jack, the main character, has a macho streak, is given to beating up on suspects he dislikes, and has a chip on his shoulder about academics. Some of the parodic treatments of academese are right on target in this novel.
Jack as a character is a bit of a puzzle--his motivations aren’t always clear. Why he falls into an affair with a woman professor isn’t made plain, especially as his wife, whom he still loves, knows about it.
The action of the novel centers around Jack’s attempt to solve the case of a missing teenaged girl. He succeeds in the attempt but the outcome is tragic, though the reader has been prepared for the outcome well in advance. An absorbing book.
BYATT, A. S.
A WHISTLING WOMAN (2002)
Maybe A. S. Byatt and I are just not kindred spirits. I've read one or two of her other novels and felt the same irritation that I felt with A Whistling Woman....
There are too many characters in the novel to keep track of. The author herself doesn't keep very good track of them, either. But then she's dealing with the vast panorama of a university in the 1960s, with an anti-university springing up in its vicinity. On its property, as a matter of fact, and wouldn't you know? The university wins out over the little band of rebels in their encampment.
A. S. Byatt is rather emphatically on the side of the university in spite of her attempts at making satiric thrusts at both sides. The implication here is that the rebels' "real" objective is to ease their own lives by forcing the university to soften up its foreign-language requirements.
My biggest problem with this novel is that the characters don't come alive. They aren't fleshed out. There is too much going on here, and Byatt is apparently eager to show off her knowledge of just about everything under the sun.
The result is a novel that is showy but without much depth. Perhaps I would care more about the main character, Frederica, if I had read the rest of the quartet of novels involving her. But I doubt it.
25 March 2006