MY WARS ARE LAID AWAY IN BOOKS: THE LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON (2002)
This comprehensive biography seems thoroughly researched, and the author is at pains to correct the dating of Emily Dickinson's letters. In one of several appendices, there is a sad list of deaths from tuberculosis. In 1850, 22% of the deaths in Massachusetts were due to tuberculosis, the author tells us.
The author is sympathetic to his subject though it is clear that her behavior was often enigmatic, as were her writings. He spends perhaps too much time demolishing other biographers of Emily Dickinson, but it is probably a welcome corrective to what passes for scholarship when he hammers away at those critics who have tried to establish her as a lesbian.
He also puts forth the highly plausible idea that her refusal to become a Christian, in a community often swept by enthusiasm for revivals, could have contributed to her reasons for choosing to live apart from the rest of the world for most of her days.
HACKWORTH, COL. DAVID H.
ABOUT FACE: THE ODYSSEY OF AN AMERICAN WARRIOR (1989)
This is an account of the author’s life in the Army, including Korea and Vietnam, and of his ultimate disillusionment. He lied about his age in order to join the Army at fifteen. In June 1971, however, Colonel Hackworth, by now a much-decorated, career military man whose officer status didn’t come from West Point, went public with his criticism of the Vietnam War—on nationwide ABC-TV, where he was interviewed on the “Issues and Answers" program.
May 27, 1991
(in collaboration with Tom Matthews):
HAZARDOUS DUTY: AMERICA'S MOST DECORATED LIVING SOLDIER REPORTS FROM THE FRONT AND TELLS IT THE WAY IT IS (1996)
This is an excellent collection of reports from several recent arenas of US military exhibitionism: Iraq, Serbia, etc. Hackworth is outspoken in his criticism of the US overemphasis on military spending.
16 February 1999
AFTER VISITING FRIENDS: A SON'S STORY (2013)
The author, a reporter, gives an account of his father's death as he pieces the details together decades later.
His father, who worked for a Chicago newspaper, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1970 when the author was only 6. The obituary notice leaves some questions open about this death--not its cause but just where Bob Hainey was at the time and what he was doing.
I can understand the author's natural curiosity to have more information but I fail to understand his feeling that, in all honesty, he should tell his mother what he found out.
The book raises some important questions about how and whether information is shared, and with whom. If his mother had seemed interested in knowing details, had tried to seek them out, perhaps he ought to have shared them, but, given the nature of the details and the fact that his mother had been suddenly left widowed with two sons to raise, I see no point in letting her know that her husband had been carrying on an affair with one of his employees.
We don't always owe our loved ones the whole truth. When sharing some information can only hurt the person with whom it is shared, why not keep quiet about it and let sleeping dogs lie?
Interestingly, most of the people Hainey finds and interviews in his quest for details refuse to share the story with him even though he senses that they know more than they are telling. "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" isn't an outmoded idea.
A MAP OF THE WORLD (1994)
Here we have a novel about two young couples and their children on a Wisconsin dairy farm.
19 December 1998
WESSEX TALES (1888)
A collection of Hardy's shorter tales set in his Wessex country. These stories tend to revolve around grim themes, and some have a ghostly element. Reading these stories before tackling Hardy's novels would provide a good introduction to the Wessex customs and speech--and to Hardy's somber, fatalistic view of the world.
THE SECRET LIVES OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM: A BIOGRAPHY (2010)
Having read only one work by W. Somerset Maugham--his semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage--I can't say much about a biography of Maugham, but this particular book strikes me as an attempt to dig up all of the dirt the author could find, perhaps in an attempt at boosting the sales of her book.
Hastings does not shy away from addressing Maugham's individual works, providing brief summaries of them and addressing their critical reception.
Hastings does not shy away from addressing Maugham's individual works, providing brief summaries of them and addressing their critical reception.
However, she gives too much attention to delineating Maugham's unfortunate love life, including his disastrous marriage to Syrie Wellcome, originally the wife of a very prosperous pharmaceutical manufacturer, and proceeding to his long homosexual relationships with two much younger men, one of whom (Gerald) had been arrested for gross indecency and exiled from England forever. There are other relationships, usually with much younger men, and it is clear that Maugham and his circle had no qualms about frequenting boy brothels in Malaya.
The source material for the intimate details of Maugham's life is sometimes questionable. The author cites a couple of men friends in whom Maugham confided about his unsatisfactory marriage, for example. How reliable can this information be?
Hastings states that Hugh Walpole, a good friend of Maugham's, was known among the queer community as the only one among them who succeeded in bedding Henry James--but she offers no evidence to support this anecdote. Other accounts of the life of Henry James contain no mention of it, and in fact state that Henry James probably never had any homosexual encounters.
Maugham rose to the status of an internationally known celebrity by virtue of his many plays and film adaptations. In the latter part of his life he was extremely successful--and knew many of the illustrious people of his age: H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, George Cukor, even the Russian leader Alexander Kerensky. He was in demand as a spy in both world wars, and he was nothing if not well-traveled.
Petrograd, Kuala Lumpur, Hollywood, and the Riviera--these are only a few of the places where Maugham could be found. He had an especially close connection with France since he had been born there.
Trained as a doctor, Maugham seems to have abandoned his interest in medicine once he began writing. Eventually he distinguished himself as a public speaker in spite of being troubled lifelong by an embarrassing severe stammer.
Moving in the upper strata of British society as he did, and being the most saleable of Doubleday's stable of writers at the time, perhaps it isn't surprising that he had such a close relationship with his US publisher, Nelson Doubleday, that the publisher built him a bungalow on an estate in South Carolina, with three bedrooms, a large living room, a veranda, a servants' quarters, and a separate cottage for Maugham to work in. The four servants who looked after him during his stay there in the World War 2 era are described in some detail. But then we never find out what happened to that bungalow during the rest of Maugham's life.
This is a quibble, of course. My main complaint about this biography is my objection to many biographies being written in recent years. I question the usefulness of intensive probing into the bedrooms of biographical subjects.
It might be argued that Maugham's sexual predilections influenced the way he portrayed the sexuality of his characters. Perhaps. But how far does this train of thought get us? If he has told a story well, isn't it our business as critics or biographers to call it to an audience's attention and to point out particularly adept elements in the story--to hold it up for close inspection as we have it in front of us? We can say that Maugham's presumed bisexuality might have enabled him to have a more realistic view of some aspects of sexuality in women, but do we need to know every sordid detail of his private life?
THE EYES OF WILLIE McGEE: A TRAGEDY OF RACE, SEX, AND SECRETS IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH (2010)
Over half a century has passed since Willie McGee, a black man in Mississippi, was executed for the presumed rape of a white woman, but the author has delved into the story and provides a narrative of it. While he was at it, though, I wish he had come up with an attempt at an explanation of what really did happen.
None is offered. Instead we have a long, rambling account, with snippets of quotations from a variety of people, some of whom might be very unreliable commentators.
Considerable attention is given to the involvement of various celebrities in this case: William Faulkner, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson and others.
There must have been more material about Willie McGee himself, but Heard has not availed himself of it. In fact, he seems to have almost scrupulously avoided the topic of the background and personality of Willie McGee. He suggests in passing that the executed man might have been of subnormal intelligence and understanding, but he is far more interested in pursuing other interests.
One is the considerable activity of the US Communist Party with reference to this case, which became one of their pet causes. As might have been expected, others who might have lent support to Willie McGee tended to back off as soon as they saw indications that the Communists were in his corner.
Whether or not he committed rape isn't really the point of this book, but it would have been interesting to know what really happened, insofar as that can be known.
The point of the book, if there is one, seems to be that execution for the crime of rape is unduly harsh--and is a sentence that has been passed only on black men in the south. Whatever his crime may have been, the author indicates, Willie McGee should not have been electrocuted.
Heard discourses in some detail about Mississippi's notorious "portable electric chair." Willie McGee's execution is described.
In general, the book is making an important point but often lacks focus and provides too much information about material we don't need to know and not enough information about facts that are very important to an understanding of this case.
21 March 2013
CATCH AS CATCH CAN: SELECTED STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS (2003)
This book is a compilation of various writings by the author, published several years after his death. Some of the stories seem slight, but the material about Catch-22 was very interesting.
In particular, there is considerable information about the making of the movie--enough for me to want to see the movie, after all.
Heller may go down in history as one of those authors who had only one good book in them--but what a book it was. And in Catch as Catch Can it is like encountering beloved old friends to find the familiar characters--Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman, and Major Major, among others--who made so many of us laugh until we ached in the '60s.
5 November 2009
NOW AND THEN: FROM CONEY ISLAND TO HERE (1998)
This autobiographical book sheds light on some of the originals for characters in Heller's Catch-22, more than thirty years after the publication of that acclaimed novel.
Heller tells of his childhood in Depression-era New York--specifically, Coney Island, where he was part of a fairly close-knit Jewish community. There is rich detail about the Coney Island atmosphere. Heller himself was in World War II, and it is clear after reading Now and Then that much of the experience described in Catch-22 is actually very similar to his own.
This memoir largely omits the war, however, and concentrates on Heller's early years: his childhood friends and their activities, the local characters, some of his family.
This was a well-written and absorbing book. I should think that a reader unfamiliar with Catch-22 would find it just as interesting as I did. The book is filled with many humorous anecdotes and observations, and it is well worth the reader's undivided attention.
HENRIKSSON, ANDERS (comp.)
NON CAMPUS MENTIS: WORLD HISTORY ACCORDING TO COLLEGE STUDENTS (2001)
I would recommend this compilation of student mistakes as authentic and very funny. When I say "authentic," I mean that these are clearly not "made up" miscommunications but the real thing-- snippets from college students' writing that show how very wrong people can get things sometimes when they might be trying their hardest to get them right.
The selections in this book have been culled from several collections by professors and are a treasure-trove of gems such as "Russia was crushed under the Mongol yolk."
The book includes some maps--for instance, one of "Middle Evil Times," with "vacant Bishop Bricks" designated.
HIROSHIMA (1946; 1986)
This book first ran as a long article in the New Yorker in 1946, with the entire magazine given over to it--no editorials or other articles. .
Hersey focused on six survivors of the Hiroshima bombing (August 1945), and forty years later he wrote a follow-up essay about their lives.
This work had an immense instant popular interest. Albert
Einstein immediately ordered a thousand copies, for instance.
Hersey gives considerable attention to the "Hiroshima maidens," the women whose faces were badly disfigured by keloid scars as a result of the bomb--some of whom were brought to the US for plastic surgery.
One has to wonder if the author is taking it upon himself to atone for the US by showing how fundamentally kind most of us are. I was looking for more information on the effects of the bomb blast and its radiation on its victims. These are explored too but by 1986 the information could have been much more detailed.
But as a piece of reporting that had to be done, Hiroshima is a well written, balanced account. It gives the facts without sensationalism or preaching.
Hersey seems sensitive to the Japanese people. He emphasizes the silence observed among the people in the aftermath of the bomb. He sees it as a manifestation of the stoicism and resignation to one's fate that are part of many Oriental world-views. Without any information about what had happened to them, the citizens of Hiroshima carried on as well as they could--and it was often their remarkable spirit of caring for one another that saved people from even worse fates.
Most people alive today can't recall a time when the world didn't live in the shadow of the explosions that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hersey is aware that there is no going back to that earlier time. Interspersed with his narrative are announcements of more bomb tests, of more countries that have acquired the bomb, and of the hydrogen bomb.
This book ought to chill every one of its readers to the bone, but apparently not enough people have read it. Or if they read it, they weren't chilled enough by it. We may have abandoned our intention to build bomb shelters, and schoolchildren no longer seem to have the air raid drills that were part of my generation's experience, but sixty-five years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear war is still very much a part of the picture.
31 October 2010
TEAM RODENT: HOW DISNEY DEVOURS THE WORLD (1998)
This is such a short work, really a pamphlet, that it has no sections. Its author is really angry about the way in which Disney enterprises are taking over the scene in Florida. A native Floridian, he makes a good case for his concern and outrage.
His point is that Disney's vision of the world--as touted by the "imagineers"--is one where all animals, even mice, are fuzzy, cuddly, lovable and cute. And above all, they are fake. With this unnatural view of the way things are (because they "ought" to be that way), the Disney people have proceeded to buy vast tracts of land and appropriate it to their carefully organized tourist-trap scenes, and have branched out to create a planned community called Celebration.
Nature and natural events have a way of disrupting some of Disney's plans, and Hiassen takes a fiendish delight in any disruption that comes along. He sees the Disney people as probably so powerful as to be unstoppable, but he at least has been willing to express his outrage.
This is a bitter and often very funny book.
THIEVES IN HIGH PLACES: THEY'VE STOLEN OUR COUNTRY AND IT'S TIME TO TAKE IT BACK (2003)
The author is a public radio commentator and journalist--and served as the Texas Agricultural Commissioner from 1983 to 1991. He knows whereof he speaks.
Whether he's talking about food or sweatshops or Wal-Mart or the Bush family, he seems always to be on firm ground, with mountains of facts at the ready.
In a hilarious style, he speaks out on behalf of the many ordinary people in the US who are increasingly enraged at the growth in power of big corporations throughout the land.
He takes particular aim at George W. Bush. Like his fellow Texan, Molly Ivins, he has an awareness of Dubya's general ineptitude that is based on knowledge of his record in Texas before rising to national prominence. It isn't a pretty picture.
This is a frankly rabble-rousing book, but sometimes there needs to be rabble-rousing if anything is to be accomplished. Its polemical nature is buffered by its humor--with chapter titles like "Never Have So Few Done So Much for So Few" and its no-nonsense, gritty language.
A winner of a book.
20 May 2010
HILL, BETH ANN
MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS Q AND A: REASSURING ANSWERS TO FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (2003)
A brief book, probably useful for somebody recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, by an author who has MS herself. She includes a handy list of all of the MS centers that have the blessing of the National MS Society, on a state-by-state basis.
There are some errors in the book--Betaseron was not originally known as Copolymer 1, as Hill states. (Copaxone was called Copolymer 1.) But by and large the book would be a valuable practical guide for somebody for whom MS is new.
25 July 2007
RUN MAN RUN (1966)
This is an absorbing and suspenseful story about a black man in New York City who knows that a cop is stalking him in order to kill him because he knows too much. He has witnessed the cop's murder of two of his co-workers. The cop has a drinking problem and has forgotten where he parked his car. In his drunken fog, he assumes that it has been stolen, accuses a (black) man of stealing it, and shoots him dead. Then he feels obliged to shoot a co-worker who has witnessed the murder.
2 January 2008
LAST DANCE AT THE HOTEL KEMPINSKI: CREATING A LIFE IN THE SHADOW OF HISTORY (1995)
The author owns a restaurant in Greenwich Village and has had many adventures in several countries, but the focus of this memoir is on his parents' generation. His parents met at a dance at the Hotel Kempinski in Berlin in Nazi Germany, and left for England in the mid-1930s. Some of their closest relatives perished in the camps.
This history, as Hirsch demonstrates, casts a long shadow and has pervaded his life, as he moved from being a callow youngster ashamed of his family's German accents to a young man horrified and awed by what he can deduce has been their experience, an experience he himself would never begin to be able to imagine living through.
His renditions of his family's speech are well done, often slyly but affectionately humorous. He hasn't always seen eye to eye with his father, particularly, but it is clear that he respects him.
Sometimes the writing becomes a bit ponderous, and there are entirely too many sequences of sentences starting with "And..." This stylistic quirk--quite possibly derived from the language of the Bible--has been tried by all too many writers in recent decades but it almost never works well.
But this one quibble shouldn't mar an otherwise absorbing and well-told narrative.
3 August 2011
THE VIEW FROM ALGER'S WINDOW: A SON'S MEMOIR (1999)
Tony Hiss is fairly well known and accomplished as a journalist, having written "Talk of the Town" pieces for The New Yorker, but he is also known as the son of the alleged spy Alger Hiss. This account is his defense of his father, dealing mainly with the several years Alger Hiss spent in prison and using as the principal material for the book Hiss's letters to his wife and Tony from prison.
Tony Hiss makes no serious attempt at disproving the charges against his father. His case for Alger Hiss rests on the assumption that any man who showed so much compassion and integrity in his dealings with people, especially his family, couldn't possibly have been a spy for the Soviet Union. Letting people see the human side of Alger Hiss is the son's purpose.
The book would be most interesting for a reader familiar with Witness, the lengthy book by Whittaker Chambers that was very instrumental in Hiss's downfall. Tony Hiss asserts that Chambers's story was a tissue of lies, but he offers no guesses about what might have motivated Chambers to make his accusations and produce such an elaborate story.
I have no idea whether Alger Hiss was guilty or innocent. Historians are still disputing this issue, which may never be satisfactorily resolved. The picture of him that this book draws is of a man who loves nature and his family--and who never once mentions Communism in his letters.
The Hiss family had friends in high places, who helped them financially and emotionally. Without their help, one can imagine that the family might have been thoroughly destroyed. As it was, Alger Hiss and his wife ultimately separated, but by the end of the narrative the reader feels that those who were most affected by Hiss's conviction and imprisonment managed to survive the ordeal.
9 December 2006
THE RED GARDEN (2011)
This is a novel only in a very loose sense. It's a series of stories, all set in the fictional Blackwell, Massachusetts, with each episode moving forward chronologically.
The material is trite, I think. Yes, Blackwell, Massachusetts, has its own quirky legends, including one involving the already-Disneyfied Johnny Appleseed. The author dabbles in magical realism from time to time, but in general her writing tends to have too many overworked passages, as in "they said 'I do'" and "...asked her for her hand."
Hoffman might have learned the difference between persuade and convince, too, it seems to me, but her occasional use of the f--- word should have helped to boost sales, and nitpicking old fuddyduddies prattling on about fine points of usage should just get back to their knitting.
I can't say much about the characters in these stories because there's just not much to them.
HOLLAND, JULIE, MD
WEEKENDS AT BELLEVUE: NINE YEARS ON THE NIGHT SHIFT AT THE PSYCHIATRIC ER (2009)
Julie Holland, MD, became a psychiatrist and landed a post as the weekend attending physician in the Bellevue CPEP (Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, the psychiatric ER at Bellevue)—a position she stayed in for nine years, until, after having two children, the lure of the comparative safety of motherhood, home and hearth—and a (probably lucrative) private practice led her to quit. This book purports to be about her weekends at Bellevue.
We do get to know about some of the patients she saw—probably the more sensationally lurid ones, like the man who had concealed a razor in his rectum. But all too much of the book is given over to miscellaneous details from the author's life: her first colonoscopy, a well-nigh interminable account of her first labor, and later a description of the very scientific way she and her husband went about trying to conceive their second child. We also get passages about her association with actor/monologist Spalding Gray. We become aware that she and her family have not only a Manhattan apartment but a country house as well. She makes it clear from the outset that one attraction of working intensive weekends at Bellevue (a couple of 15-hour shifts) for her was that she would have the week free to do whatever she wanted.
Fair enough, and understandable, particularly for someone in a high-stress job such as hers must have been. But how is she performing on that high-stress job? After the catastrophe of 9/11, she wants to find out if she’s needed at the hospital, and says she spent 30 hours on the phone trying to reach the hospital. She didn’t go in until days later. In fact, days after 9/11, she decides to get her nails done: “’I haven’t had a manicure in months.’” She spends the days after 9/11 kayaking and hiking in the woods.
She doesn’t soon leave her world of cocktail parties, Cape Cod, and sailing just because emergency personnel might be in great demand during a national disaster.
At another time she tells a patient she’s giving him the Methadone he’d requested but actually intentionally gives him the very powerful (and often dangerous) drug Thorazine even though she knows that lying to a patient about what medicine she’s giving is against the law. She seems almost proud of herself for being flexible enough to do something like this—mostly to accommodate a cop who wants this man sedated to a “dead weight.”
She makes it clear that she’s often in danger as an ER doc at Bellevue. She gets threatening and anonymous suggestive phone calls. She’s afraid she’ll bump into a rapist. One patient punches her.
OK, it’s a dangerous job. I wouldn’t argue that point for a minute. But she has police flanking her at all times. She knows all of them personally and works closely with them.
--As, of course, she would need to, given the system she is working for. The mental health system, at least in the US, is organized around a flagrant violation of human rights, after all, even though most people prefer not to think about this fact.
There are several ways in which a person can be locked up for mental illness, and none of them is truly voluntary--unless that person has money (quite a bit of it) and can sign himself up in a private mental hospital of his choice, in which case he is free to sign himself out as well. The rest of the US citizenry finds that “voluntary” hospitalization is really an illusion. Someone who has been reported as being a danger to himself or others is offered two choices: go voluntarily with the officers who will transport him to a locked mental ward, or else the officers will take that person by force.
As anyone who has ever observed any part of this process knows, “force” means just that. There are several police at the ready, fit as fiddles and of course armed. If the person puts up too much resistance, more force is applied. “Restraints” are used. A hypo is given—an injection speedily and efficiently administered so that the person quiets down fast. Later he will become aware that he is in a place with bars on the windows, from which there may be no escape.
“Voluntary”? And yet in her Glossary for this book, Holland provides the shorthand used at Bellevue: “913” for a voluntary admission, “939” for an involuntary one, and then there is the “940” category, for a 72-hour hold, for an admission to the Extended Observation Unit or EOU.
All through this book I felt that there was an elephant in the room, and Holland never saw it. The system she was serving is a brutal way of locking up people society finds inconvenient or threatening, getting them out of the way, and usually doing so very expeditiously. A psychiatrist can diagnose psychoses like paranoid schizophrenia after interviewing a patient for only a few minutes. Who looks at how long that diagnosis written on a form took? Who looks at how that diagnosis was made? Nobody.
Julie Holland goes jauntily along, rather evidently enjoying her immense power. She can decide whether a patient will be sent to a different facility, sent back to prison, released, medicated. Many people’s lives have been altered irreversibly by people like Julie Holland, MD.
While she’s at it, she emphasizes her own desirability. She gleefully details her several sexual encounters in the call room with male doctors. The boy friend who must have become her husband at some point in these nine years isn’t mentioned in this connection. Later she gets a new boss, Maxwell, who kisses her effusively and unexpectedly on the lips at a party—sickening her. And so on.
This book is appallingly bad. Not just because it reveals the author to be alarmingly unprofessional--and apparently almost proud of the fact--but because she indulges in trendy language, as in “My tough-guy confrontational thing is so over,” and the account is sloppily written.
And yet towards the end Holland is exuding compassion for the homeless on the street: “They’re my people”—as she prepares to leave Bellevue forever, and she smugly concludes that “Not everyone is built for Bellevue like I was.”
Her specialty seems to be psychopharmacology and she clearly has great faith in the efficacy of drugs in overcoming mental disorders. She is presumably whipping off prescriptions in her private practice even now. One can only be glad that she is no longer at Bellevue, but there is the unfortunate probability that other psychiatrists, like her or far worse, have come along to replace her.
10 August 2014
HOLLEY, BYRON E.
VIETNAM 1968-1969: A BATTALION SURGEON'S JOURNAL (1993)
This book is mainly a collection of the author’s letters to his fiancée or wife, from his year as a combat medic in Vietnam. Colonel David Hackworth was in command of his battalion.
10 April 2000
THE GHOST IN THE LITTLE HOUSE: A LIFE OF ROSE WILDER LANE (1993)
An account of the life of the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with considerable evidence that Rose Wilder Lane ghost-wrote most of the famous author's Little House books.
A PLACE IN THE WOODS (1969)
In the 1950s Helen Hoover, a metallurgist, and her husband Adrian, an artist, decided to leave their Chicago jobs and adopt a rugged lifestyle in the Minnesota woods. They were by no means the only couple to make this choice (the Nearings come to mind), but the author's extraordinary talent for observing and describing wild creatures makes this account stand out.
Many of the practical details of the Hoovers' woods establishment remain unclear at the book's end, but if taken at face value, their experience has to be seen as a remarkable achievement in the pertinacity with which they managed to triumph over difficulty after difficulty.
13 June 2008
HARD CITY (1990)
The autobiography of a boy growing up on Chicago's streets--with his drug-addicted mother vaguely and hopelessly on the periphery of his life.
HURSTON, ZORA NEALE
EVERY TONGUE GOT TO CONFESS: NEGRO FOLKTALES FROM THE GULF STATES (published 2001)
The celebrated anthropologist author died in obscurity, and only decades later was the manuscript of Every Tongue Got to Confess found. It seems to have been readied for publication but some decisions about what to include had not yet been made.
Hurston carefully collected these folktales on her travels through the Gulf states in the 1920s, and they are reproduced here as she transcribed them. She retained the speech patterns of the narrators from whom she heard the tales, and now that some of the unique aspects of African-American speech are fast disappearing, Hurston's work should become increasingly important.
Some of the tales are merely a sentence in length. A few are derived from European sources, but Hurston has tried to exclude "Pat and Mike" stories and other obvious borrowings. By and large, the tales are unique to the African-American experience--a world where animals talk and the white man is the enemy. It is in some of these tales, in fact, that the ex-slaves and their descendants can enjoy a small triumph over the white oppressing class by constructing narratives in which the master is bested or destroyed.
Many contemporary African-Americans have no use for the older "handkerchief-head" dialect but they are doing themselves a disservice by rejecting an important part of their past. These tales show a rich culture that flourished in spite of the formidable obstacles that stood in its way. Zora Neale Hurston believed in preserving this culture, especially that of "the Negro lowest down" on the ladder, and she made strenuous efforts toward finding and recording its strong oral narrative tradition.
26 December 2008
TELL MY HORSE: VOODOO AND LIFE IN HAITI AND JAMAICA (1937)
This beautifully written anthropological work deals with customs in Haiti and Jamaica. Hurston seems to have blazed new trails in her field--anthropology--by insisting on being present at rituals from which she normally would have been excluded and by refusing to be content with "staged" events.
While exploring life in Haiti and Jamaica, she manages to inject some very perceptive remarks about the US racial situation.
If this book isn't among the classics of anthropological writing, it should be.
15 February 2008
WHAT I LOVED (2003)
This is a novel that keeps getting wrapped up in analyzing. Maybe Hustvedt is more of an analyst than a novelist, more a commentator than a storyteller. There is a long section appended to the book showing the extensive research the author has done, for instance. Most novelists don't bother to tell us what sources they used for their material.
It is yet another novel (there seem to be quite a few of these nowadays) where decades pass and we follow the central characters on into their old age. Leo Hertzberg is the narrator, and he is telling us about his wife Erika, their son Matthew, and the apparently very talented artist Bill Wechsler and his family, who share the building in New York where the Hertzbergs live.
There is considerable detail about the contemporary New York art scene and about the implications it can have when a crime is at issue, for instance: the ambiguities created when men dress as women and vice versa, the uncertainties involved in staged works of art that are reproductions of violent scenes. What happens when a real murder seems to have been committed, and an artist who specializes in violence-riddled hoaxes meant to shock the spectators seems to be the prime suspect?
These are just a few of the "large" questions raised in this novel. The author also explores the mysteries of anorexia and drug addiction while she's at it.
There are a few explicit sex scenes early in the book, but she gives up on those soon enough, maybe just because her characters are aging.
There is also the tragic death of the Hertzbergs' son Matthew.
So this story covers a lot of territory--too much for my taste. The author has tried to do too much in one novel.
26 April 2010
YONDER: ESSAYS (1998)
These essays on a variety of topics may have appeared elsewhere before being compiled into this brief collection, but if so, there is no indication of where they were previously published.
Siri Hustvedt discusses her Norwegian heritage, the paintings of Vermeer, Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, among other subjects. She is especially interested in the concept of "yonder" as neither here nor there but in between.
Some of her symbol-hunting seems a bit fanciful, but she writes well. She has published a number of novels too, and this collection of essays prompts me to try them as well.
16 October 2008