CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: DEATH, LIFE, AND JUSTICE IN A SOUTHERN TOWN (1995)
This is a journalist's account of two murders of young women in a small southern Alabama town, Monroeville, that happens to be the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In fact, the author prefaces each section of his book with quotations from the Harper Lee novel. His account concerns a wrongfully convicted man who spent six years on Death Row before he was finally freed.
It is a long and involved account, and we never learn who actually did commit the two murders. The author captures the daunting complexity of legal procedures just by following the story on and on, through the maze of conflicting stories, many from less-than-reliable witnesses.
The narrative seems like a fairly realistic representation of the way things probably were in the lives of the many people named. I'm not sure that the author's representation of Southern African-American speech is accurate, and I have a question about the wisdom of using the n------ word.
I'm assuming that the author's justification for his frequent use of this highly objectionable word is that this is the way these people talked, or even that this is an accurate transcription of their exact words.
Mark Twain got away with this idea (in Huckleberry Finn, for example), but he was writing before we had become fully aware of just how loaded this word is. Sometimes verisimilitude has to take a back seat to the spirit of the times, and the spirit of these times has--gratifyingly--favored burying this word as fast as we possibly can--not to forget that it existed but just to see to it that its use stops.
Representing its use in speech--even in speech that purports to be an accurate representation of the way these particular people actually spoke--does nothing toward eliminating the word from our vocabulary. There are other ways of conveying the bigoted attitudes of some of the people in this account. We don't have to read the n------ word to get the point, thanks.
25 July 2010
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE SICK: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF CHRONIC ILLNESS IN AMERICA (2013)
There is one problem with books in this genre, and there are many such books--the author usually has a disorder or two that has prompted the writing of the book, and in order to illustrate points in the book's content, the author almost has to bring that disorder into the discussion.
When that happens, if there's a tad too much of it, the book comes across as more about that person's disorder(s) than about helpful information for others unless, of course, "others" happen to have that disorder.
In this author's case, others with her disorder aren't going to come along very often. She has primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD), a serious lung disorder, somewhat like cystic fibrosis, but so rare that it took a long time for Edwards to be diagnosed.
If her book has a fault, it may be that it gives a bit more information about the author's medical history than is warranted.
She covers a wide range of chronic medical conditions, but the coverage is rather standard information, easily available from other sources.
She has an impressive bibliography but these references turn out to be drawn primarily from the Internet. More depth would have been welcome here.
14 May, 2015
HOW WE ARE HUNGRY: STORIES (2005)
I am not sure about the title of this brief collection of very brief stories because there is no story called "How We Are Hungry" among them, but this book has been a best-seller.
Most of the stories are fairly slight and lack much plot, but they show the author's ready wit. "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself" consists of a couple of blank pages--a trick that has been tried before but it still may be good for a chuckle.
"Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" was the most interesting story of the lot, in my opinion. It is an account of a woman's experiences on a mountain-climbing expedition to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and if I ever aspired to go on such an expedition, reading this story has thoroughly cured me of that wish. I suspect that the story accurately represents contemporary mountain-climbing conditions: too many expeditions cluttering up the mountainsides, and too many amateurs or poorly trained persons endangering the lives of others. This story was bone-chilling and well-done.
A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS (2000)
This apparently autobiographical novel received wide critical attention, perhaps because its author had founded a successful magazine, McSweeney's--but also because Dave Eggers had something to say that readers found interesting.
Born in 1970 and raised in the prosperous Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Eggers had the bad fortune of losing both parents to cancer within a short time--and having his younger brother to take care of thereafter. His other (older) brother and older sister are helpful, but it is Eggers himself who does the day-to-day living with the younger brother, who goes from the age of 7 to his teens in the course of the book.
They move to San Francisco, but questions about his parents' deaths keep troubling him--particularly the whereabouts of their "cremains." Towards the end of the book, he finally locates his mother's ashes, and it may be when he is casting them into the lake that his anger at the world comes to the foreground.
The book ends on an angry note, but the readers will understand if they've read the rest of the book attentively. We can share his anger at the friend (John) who refuses to pull himself together and keeps trying self-destructive measures. We can understand how overwhelmed with responsibility Eggers must have been--and we can feel how much he loves his younger brother.
This is a remarkable book that deserves a careful reading, even though comparisons with J. D. Salinger will be unavoidable.
27 November 2006
LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A NONBELIEVER'S SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT EVERYTHING
Using her autobiographical facts as a scaffolding for this narrative, Barbara Ehrenreich focuses on some episodes of what she calls "dissociation" in her late teens: "I began to indulge in a long-running fantasy" involving empty streets, no electric power, an abandoned world. Seemingly at will (though by no means always), the world was stripped of all external reality for her--or in flames.
The most dramatic episode occurred during a period of sleep deprivation and just after finding herself in a car driven by a beau who turned out to be filled with rage. She appears also to have been a victim of sunstroke at the time.
And, although she doesn't make this into a major point, her parents were both alcoholics, and the life of uncertainty she was clearly accustomed to as a result of their drinking problems may have predisposed her to an openness to extraordinary experiences.
Maybe, too, she has had an overly active imagination, one that pretends that there is another reality concealed behind the "reality" our senses give us.
Her parents were also atheists, and she knew what it was like to be outside the pale in a largely Christian church-going community.
The reality-transforming experiences that shook her to the core did not quite alter her own atheism or agnosticism, which was bolstered as time went on by her scientific pursuits, but they led her to wonder if there is an "other" or "others," possibly inhering in all animate beings.
She sees a need for calling on her fellow human beings to "accept the moral obligations a godless world entails," pointing out that without God or gods, there can be no reason for not doing whatever we can for one another and for all life.
Although she has had a couple of children, she omits almost all details about their births, their childhoods, their development--an unusual and refreshing omission in a memoir by a woman. She chooses to use her own psychological experience and her interpretations of it as the center of the account.
5 April 2015
BRIGHT-SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA (2009)
Starting in the world of breast cancer awareness, pink ribbons and all, the author--who had breast cancer herself--proceeds to megachurches, popular psychology, and even the economic system and finds a disturbing trend toward an insistence on a smiling acceptance of the situations life puts us in, often an acceptance so thorough as to be emotionally blinding.
There are employers who try to soften the harm done when they fire workers by offering support groups designed to bring the "terminated" employees around to seeing their job loss as an "opportunity," for example.
People with breast cancer are even told to think of their breast cancer as a "gift." Ehrenreich raises serious questions about how far this trend can go--and how much it has already forced people into delusional thinking.
Implied in her book is the notion that there are situations where anger and sadness are very legitimate responses and yet popular psychology nowadays comes close to forbidding them.
A book well worth reading.
BAIT AND SWITCH: THE (FUTILE) PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM (2005)
Barbara Ehrenreich has again gone undercover, this time for about ten months as a white-collar worker seeking employment. After creating a new identity, she attends networking conferences and workshops and samples job fairs.
She perceives that white-collar workers, even highly qualified ones, know that they are at the mercy of potential employers and are often willing to go to considerable lengths when it comes to personal makeovers. Ehrenreich herself consults with an expert about her dressing and makeup style.
She learns what to say (and not say) and how to say it. One person advises her that "to survive, you need to know where the bodies are buried." This statement suggests the cutthroat nature of some of the dealings in connection with obtaining jobs in white-collar occupations.
She also finds herself sitting in workshops that turn out to be meant exclusively for Christians, where the participants are voluble in their homophobic and anti-Semitic agenda. She speaks out in opposition to this approach but acknowledges that it might not be illegal.
In closing, she speculates about why white-collar workers can't rise up in protest against the kind of treatment they routinely put up with--like having to leave a job with no advance notice, coming to work one day and finding your desk cleared out. She sees union organizing as a possibility for the white-collar work force but she also realizes that so far most attempts at organizing white-collar unions have had little or no success.
Excellent book, very informative.
23 March 2009
NICKEL AND DIMED: ON (NOT) GETTING BY IN AMERICA (2001)
Fascinating and excellent account of the author’s attempts at living on the income from several successive low-paid jobs in succession in the US--Maine, Florida, etc. Her observations about Wal-Mart are especially telling--and horrifying.
30 December 2002
ELIOT, GEORGE [MARY ANNE EVANS]
SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE (1857; 1988)
Three sketches of village clerical life. The last one, "Janet’s Repentance," is a remarkable exploration of alcoholism and an abusive marriage.
10 June 2003
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK: STORIES (2012)
The author is attempting something that some believe can't legitimately be attempted: dealing with the Holocaust in fiction. It has been maintained that the horror of the Holocaust was so immense that it cannot be comprehended except perhaps by persons who lived through it. To try to represent it in art, music, or fiction would be futile and would serve only to reduce the magnitude of events that were unprecedented in human history.
Well, maybe not so unprecedented. History is full of instances where one people has slaughtered another, often on a very massive scale. And since the world's population keeps growing, genocidal slaughter is likely to be on the rise as time goes by.
Nathan Englander doesn't deal with the Holocaust except as it exists in the memories of some of his characters, either, but he's making a point with some of these stories.
The point is that, given the immensity of the Holocaust--its duration, the vast numbers cruelly wiped off the face of the earth, the lives ruined--those who escaped with what is left of their lives deserve a place to call home if ever anyone did, and Israel is that place.
Another point that a couple of these stories make is that there are times when "an eye for an eye" is the only language the heart understands, when there can be no justice in a court of law. The story "Camp Sundown," where a group of elder residents of a summer camp are sure they have discovered a former concentration camp guard, a "Demjanjuk," in their midst, makes that point.
Englander has a talent for capturing the speech of his characters, and the stories are interesting and thought-provoking.
In "The Reader," however, where the character is named simply "Author," Englander gets a little too fiercely heavy-handed in his eagerness to hammer a point home. The story concerns an Author who used to have a following but who now goes on tour, only to turn up for readings of his work to find empty rooms. Except for one reader, who follows him around from one town to another, always insisting that since he came to hear a reading, the Author must do the reading--which he then obligingly does.
--The point being, I suppose, that a writer must never give up even though there are no readers. There just may be readers some day, somewhere.
8 October 2014
WHERE SHE CAME FROM: A DAUGHTER'S SEARCH FOR HER MOTHER'S HISTORY (1997)
A sad but interesting account of the author's investigation of her mother's life. Her mother, of Czech Jewish heritage, survived imprisonment in several concentration camps, including Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of her survival tactics in the camps was to claim that she was an electrician--although she was a dressmaker.
Helen Epstein has probably captured the tense atmosphere in Prague as the Nazis tightened their noose.
26 June 2006
THE MESSENGER: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIJAH MUHAMMAD (1999)
Thoroughly documented--with several appendices, this book seems to be an accurate portrayal of Elijah Muhammad. Evanzz is not on a soapbox for Elijah Muhammad by any means. He presents evidence that the Black Muslims have been a community harboring murderers and thugs.