02 July 2005



Neuromyelitis optica, or more accurately the neuromyelitis optica spectrum of disorders, once known as Devic's disease, is a particularly grim neurological horror that unfortunately has often been mistaken for multiple sclerosis.  In this book Victoria Jackson and her daughter Ali Guthy take turns telling about the years 2008-2011, when Ali was diagnosed with "NMO" and began coping with it.

Victoria Jackson and her husband happen to be very prosperous. A line of cosmetics known as "no-makeup" makeup has been quite successful, and both Victoria and her husband have also been entrepreneurs in infomercials.

When their daughter at 14 was diagnosed with "NMO" and given perhaps only a few years to live, her mother left no stone unturned in her attempt to find answers. At one point in the book she catalogs a staggering number of MRIs and doctor visits Ali had had in those years.

Reading about the concierge doctor who was a close personal friend of the family and who seemed always to be available for them, and about the trips to Mayo Clinic and any other medical facility they decided to visit, I couldn't help thinking of the many neurologically impaired people whose reduced circumstances oblige them to make do without much (or any) medical care.

However, research is often generously funded by people with deep pockets, and Victoria Jackson has been concerned enough about everyone who is afflicted with NMO to set up a foundation that appears so far to have been filling a genuine need. By its very existence it draws attention to this little-known disorder, and it has been responsible for funding research into NMO. (There are some 20,000 NMO patients worldwide but that figure is probably much too low since many have been misdiagnosed with MS or some other disorder, as Jackson points out.)

If the author seems to be blowing her own horn just a little too often and patting herself on the back a bit too resoundingly, the reader will probably overlook it because of the important story she has told and the good results coming from the foundation she established.

2 November 2015



A great book has been said to be one that offers new perspectives with each rereading.  What Maisie Knew may be such a book, for me at least, for I have read it several times, and each time has been a new experience.

The child Maisie, who is never absent from a scene, seems to be the quintessential tabula rasa in some ways--and, with the possible exception of Mrs. Wix, may also be the one decent character in the story. This presentation of a child as intrinsically good and receptive to all experience was a Romantic or Emersonian notion that was surfacing in the latter half of the nineteenth century and is with us to this day.

Time passes during the narrative but we never know precisely how much time--maybe about six years, with Maisie's age between 6 and 12, as she is bounced around during her parents' divorce and subsequent couplings with other partners.

The situation reaches grimly comic proportions as Maisie's real parents fade out of her life, being replaced by some of the partners and by or two ex-governesses of Maisie's. (One of the former governesses, Mrs. Overmore, becomes her father's second wife, Mrs. Beale.)

It would be comic were it not for one underlying question that remains pretty much unarticulated throughout the story: Who will be in charge of the rest of Maisie's childhood? For someone will have to see to her needs, and most of the adults in her life seem too selfishly preoccupied with their own concerns to consider her.

Not much is said about money until near the end, when it is mentioned that there will be "means" available for Maisie's upbringing. Or there might be.

Whether or not these "means" were considerable enough to warrant the constant bickering over Maisie that occurs is left vague. The point is that, to most of these adults, Maisie isn't so much a person in her own right as a pawn, a tool that is useful to them at various times.

Henry James's fiction is notable for its lack of violence but What Maisie Knew contains some fairly raw scenes involving tugging and pushing and name-calling.  In the Preface to the New York edition of Maisie, James points to the scene in Kensington Gardens between Maisie and "the Captain," another of Maisie's mother's  male friends, as pivotal for Maisie, and it is a scene where Maisie cries. It is the only time anyone has spoken well of her mother, whom the Captain admires, and she is profoundly grateful.   Throughout this remarkable scene, the Captain tries gallantly to rescue Maisie and her mother from the situation they are in, to redeem Ida Farange's good name, but what Maisie already knows about her mother makes this process next to impossible.

James's Preface also makes clear that it is the death of Maisie's childhood that is being chronicled in the story.  It is satisfying for the reader to find out that at last her future upbringing will be firmly in the hands of one of the less objectionable and more qualified people in her life, but what is far more interesting--to the author and probably to most readers--is what has happened to her consciousness. 

This is a story about knowing, about how a child knows and about the limitations of a child's ability to know.  There is so much about the adults' situations that Maisie doesn't quite grasp. By the end of the story, she is beginning to decipher them, and we have watched her pass through a painful time when she has been smitten with her stepfather, Sir Claude, even though the reader knows for a fact that Sir Claude isn't the sterling character we want occupying Maisie's life.  She--and Mrs. Wix as well--have had to go through a process of coming to see Sir Claude as he is, and to say goodbye to him.

2 May 2017


    Having read this novel a few times before but many years ago, I returned to it to refresh my memory of it.  Although it lacks the penetrating observation of the later fiction, it casts considerable light on James's view of the industrial age in which he lived and the social and economic problems of that age.

In The Princess Casamassima, we have the formidably splendid figure of the Princess herself (known to readers of James's earlier novel Roderick Hudson as Christina Light), the estranged wife of an Italian prince.  She has an enthusiasm for anarchic and revolutionary ideas and has involved herself to an extent that is always left somewhat fuzzy. Is she very deeply involved or only peripherally so? Does the revolutionary cadre take her seriously, or are they using her? Worse--are they simply laughing at her?

The depth of her involvement becomes clearer by the end of the story, but it is primarily the story of "the little bookbinder," Hyacinth Robinson, that is the real subject of this novel, as we suspect from the very occasional indication that there is an observer standing by and telling us his history.

"The little bookbinder," "the Princess"--these less specific ways of referring to the two characters are often used throughout the book, while others are far more likely to be referred to by their names (Rose, Paul Muniment, M. Poupin, Millicent, Miss Pynsent, Mme Grandoni). The author may be obliging us to step back and view Hyacinth and Christina as representatives of their functions--that is, we may be meant not to become too involved with either of them, to keep remembering that Hyacinth has a somewhat lowly occupation as a bookbinder and that Christina can't easily be detached from her role as the wife of the Prince, no matter how diligent she is about working for the cause and about giving away her assets.

Henry James, steeped in the aristocratic elite though he was, had a keen eye for economic differences among people. He almost always lets the reader know what a person's exact financial circumstances are--though he always does so discreetly, more or less in passing.

In The Princess Casamassima, one of the big issues is the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots, however.  Implicit in the revolutionaries' ideology is the belief that any overturning of the system will have to be done violently and very clandestinely--that is how difficult it will be to stage any effective opposition to the powers-that-be.

The Princess Casamassima is by no means a polemic. In fact, at times James often seems to be poking fun at how seriously revolutionaries take themselves and how naive some of their number can be--notably, Hyacinth Robinson. But now and then James pauses to give us a setting for some of the scenes, and we become aware of London as it must have been during the Industrial Revolution: the crowded, unsafe, anonymous conditions of life among the many urban poor, the densely smoky air, the harsh working conditions.

It is all there--though never highlighted. At the center of the story is what happens to Hyacinth as he struggles with his conflicted situation. He might be the bastard son of a prominent aristocratic father, and he has had one brief meeting with his dying mother, a French prostitute imprisoned for murdering this man.

Having no real proof of his paternity, he is free to imagine that with aristocratic blood possibly running in his veins, he comes by his more delicate sensibilities naturally--and perhaps might even be entitled to lay claim to a place in the upper echelons of society some day.  His extreme devotion to the Princess suggests that he might be harboring hopes of a more permanent involvement with her even though the constant references to him as "the little bookbinder" remind the reader how unlikely that dream probably is.

On the other hand, his mother's father is rumored to have fallen on the barricades during the French Revolution. This rumor has just as little evidence for it as the notion about the identity of Hyacinth's father, but, in his romantic view of the world, Hyacinth builds  on it--and believes that he can play a role in helping to bring down the powerful forces against which this grandfather of his may have given his life.

Wrestling with this inner conflict, Hyacinth develops problems with the revolutionary ideology that prove to be largely aesthetic. While in Paris he burns with a hard gemlike flame--and realizes that his political ideology, if carried through to its logical outcome, will probably destroy much of the beauty that he has come to value in the world.

We are given two examples of women from the upper class who believe passionately in divesting themselves of their worldly possessions and giving what they have to the cause of helping the poor--Lady Aurora, who has  systematically been involved in altruism for years, and her  disciple, the Princess herself.  As the story goes on, we see that both Lady Aurora and the Princess have made sure that they are quietly hanging onto some parts of their wealth. They will assuredly never be as poor as those who are born into poverty, and for that reason we can't be too surprised if they aren't taken as seriously by the revolutionaries as they take themselves.

However, they are treated sympathetically. They are shown to have fundamentally good hearts. On the other hand, Paul Muniment, whom Hyacinth as chosen as his mentor and whose job as a chemist means that he dirties his hands and has to work for a living, turns out to be cruel and cold-blooded, particularly in his relations with the Princess.

The Princess Casamassima might be more about discipleship than about revolution--about the extreme hazards of becoming too devoted a disciple of any ideology or of any person representing an ideology. We have the Princess as a disciple of Lady Aurora, and Hyacinth as the disciple of both the Princess and Paul Muniment.

Paul's situation deceives us (and Hyacinth) for quite a while, particularly since we usually see him tending to his bedridden sister Rose, in a situation where he appears benevolent and caring.  By the end of the story, we see other aspects of Paul that are chilling.

This is one of the rare (maybe the only?) Henry James story showing violence. Given Hyacinth's tragedy, we probably can only be glad that in his last days he found comfort in his childhood friend Millicent, someone who has been shown in a contemptible light throughout the story. She is cheap, rude, crude, blunt, probably grasping--and yet it is Millicent as she is who soothes him--harking back as she does to a childhood when he hadn't yet encountered his forlorn mother.

13 January 2017

   THE BOSTONIANS (1885-1886)

I first read this novel over 40 years ago and cannot recall just what my reaction to it was. This time around, it was quite clear to me that James is sympathetic to the cause of women's rights even though he pillories several exemplars of that movement for their over-earnest devotion.

Some of the characters have been assumed to have been drawn from real life--Miss Birdseye based on Elizabeth Peabody, for instance.

Be that as it may, what we have here is a story revolving around a naive, malleable young woman, Verena Tarrant, and the entire story is actually a conflict over just who will "get" Verena:  her parents (soon edged out of the picture), or the manipulative Olive Chancellor, or the young man from Mississippi, Basil Ransom, who has no use for the women's rights cause but would like Verena to be his wife and helpmeet for life, or so he says.

That Basil Ransom isn't the soul of integrity is established early on. And Olive's overly intense friendship and eagerness to keep Verena in her thrall makes us suspicious of the women's rights movement as a fortunate one for Verena's future.

Basil Ransom states his case so persuasively at times that we wonder if this will be a story that ends happily ever after, with Verena and Basil joining hands and strolling off into the sunset.

However, towards the end there are a few incidents that let us know that the women's claims that they have been subjugated are no mere figment of someone's imagination. There is the policeman who prevents Basil Ransom from seeing Verena at the hall where she is scheduled to deliver her most important speech so far, and there is the sudden appearance of a Mr. Filer, never before mentioned, who it turns out is Olive Chancellor's agent (he "runs" her), threatening to tear the door down to get at Verena and Olive behind it.  Finally, there is Basil Ransom's physical removal of Verena from the scene "by muscular force."

What are all of these but instances of the power men are understood to have over women?

The story takes place in the 1870s, with the Civil War still very much present in people's minds and memories, and it is from the defeated South that Basil Ransom emerges.  He seems to hail from an older world that is no more, and what he is offering Verena--a chance to serve him and only him instead of the people she has already proved to be important to--seems almost antiquated as well.

But that view is the view of the late 20th-early 21st century. It would not have seemed out of date in the 1880s.

Henry James has a way of keeping an eye on the economics behind his characters' actions, and here we see money talking once again: Olive meets with Verena's father to give him large sums of money to oblige him to allow Verena to stay with her instead of living at home with her parents. In effect, Olive buys Verena, much as a slaveowner might buy a slave, but instead of laws enabling slavery, which have by now been repealed, she hopes to maintain Verena's loyalty by the intense emotional bond she has established.

That Verena escapes from that bondage, only to enter what is undoubtedly to be a different type of bondage by marrying Basil Ransom, is in itself a statement in favor of the emancipation of women.

September 7, 2017

    THE GOLDEN BOWL (1904)

This very subtle story seems to concern the way we can delude ourselves and others by telling only that part of the truth that we want to tell, while realizing that if a very shocking portion of it is omitted, we have behaved deceptively. Charlotte Stant  chooses not to mention her affair with the Prince when she is asked to marry Adam Verver, and the Prince and Fanny and Colonel Assingham likewise choose silence, although all must be quite aware that because of the circumstances (Adam Verver’s being the father of the Prince’s new wife, who is also Charlotte’s best friend), it is a fact that deserves to have become known.
This is one of my favorite novels.
19 January 1989

    THE AWKWARD AGE (1899)

This is a novel about a young woman competing with her mother for an eligible young bachelor. Nanda Brookenham, who is about 18 or 19, is a "modern" young woman. Vandebank (Mr. Van) is a young, attractive man who has no means. Wanting to maintain his warm relationship with Nanda’s mother, Mrs. Brook, he declines an offer from Mr. Longdon that amounts to a bribe: Mr. Longdon will endow Mr. Van with his considerable fortune if he will marry Nanda.

Other characters people the stage: Nanda’s spendthrift brother Harold, her good friend Tishi Grendon, and Aggie (Agnesina), who is a near-caricature of the pure, sheltered young woman.

James has said that his intention was to write this novel as if it were a play. Thus the action--what there is of it--takes place entirely in a few rooms and consists mainly of dialogue.


   COMPLETE STORIES: 1864-1874 (Literary Classics of the              United States, 1999)

This is the first of four volumes of James's short stories and represents his earliest published short fiction. The volume has 972 pages and so is quite a substantial collection. Some of the stories did not make it into the New York edition, and the reader familiar with James's later work will see why they might have been set aside.

These stories are interesting for the light they shed on the later Henry James. They contain many of his later fascinations. Several of them take place in Italy. A number of them are padded with material that sounds more like a travelogue--but it's all beautifully written if one can tolerate James's snobbery.

31 January 2005

   COMPLETE STORIES, 1874-1884 (1999)

A recent biographer of Henry James made the unsubstantiated statement that James was anti-Semitic. Ever since reading the statement I've wished that the biographer had been more specific. In this collection of stories, however, I see why the biographer felt no need to provide chapter and verse to back up the assertion of James's anti-Semitism.

It is not a rabid or florid anti-Semitism. That much can be said for it. But it is there, just as it is there in many writers of this time and place. Maybe it can be dismissed and chalked up to the provincialism of the time, but I'm finding this difficult.

"Professor Fargo," one of the stories in this volume, includes a stereotypical "little Jew" who is interested only in money. In "Eugene Pickering," somebody is married to "a vicious Jew." And the first-person narrator of "Impressions of a Cousin," who reveals herself to be less then reliable as the story proceeds, makes frequent references to what she presumes is the Jewishness of one of the male characters whom she dislikes.

These stories do show James exploring one of his favorite themes--the contrast between the American scene and the European--particularly in "An International Episode." And "The Ghostly Rental" shows his apparent fondness for the ghost story--and might lend support to those who see "The Turn of the Screw" as primarily a ghost story.

"Longstaff's Marriage" has definite similarities to the story told in The Wings of the Dove: a dying young woman is in danger of being exploited for her money.

    THE OUTCRY (1911)

Very seldom read, this last of James's novels began life as a play--and seems not to have withstood the transition to a novel very well. Most of the novel consists of dialogue, with very little action. Even as a play, it probably would have failed.

James is using the style that has come to be known as "late Henry James," which served him well in The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, and The Ambassadors. Why it doesn't work so well here may have something to do with the theme. The other novels concern major human events (the death of Milly Theale, for instance). The focus of interest in The Outcry is a painting--with a rather slight romance perking around the edges of the story.

The Outcry is a comedy that gets almost blunt in its mockery of the English upper class. It very pointedly reveals its characters to be greedy for American money--or perhaps for any money. The American in the story (Breckinridge Bender, who has deep pockets and a wish to impress the world with them) doesn't come off well either.

He is said to be modelled on J. P. Morgan. James gives us a deft caricature of a basically trusting and simple man who happens to have a great deal of money and a wish to collect a major work of art.

The big problem of the story is whether the work he wants, which is the property of Lord Theign, is a fine Moretto, as has always been believed, or actually the eighth work by Mantovano, who has always been believed to have done only seven paintings in his lifetime.

James thought he made up the artists' names but learned later that there really was a painter named Mantovano. This error caused him some embarrassment, by all accounts, but then he didn't often make mistakes---and had no Google search engine at his command.

The action of the story, such action as there is, is so often interrupted by the appearance of the butler on the scene that I wonder if this was intended to contribute to the humor of the situation--or was it so routine at that time and in that place as not to be notable? The reader becomes keenly aware that at this high level of society, people must always have had to be on their guard about what they said because of the possibility of a servant's appearance--and so very important interactions between persons often had to be postponed or cut short.

There is a larger theme at work here, too: the controversy about the proprietorship of major works of art--a controversy that was current at the time because it seemed to the English that Americans were buying British works of art and carting them off in large numbers, to the detriment of the British national heritage.

James clearly regards the entire dispute as a pointless excuse for nationalistic fervor that could easily backfire on the English. One character in the story mentions the Elgin marbles to demonstrate that, after all, the English have done their share of walking off with the art works of other countries.

I found this novel interesting though its style is often convoluted and difficult.

24 July 2009; re-read September 2016


Mme Merle and Gilbert Osmond are fascinating studies in evil, greed and manipulation. Pansy Osmond is somewhat annoying as the palely delineated angelic offspring of Mme Merle and Osmond. Isabel Archer’s dilemmas are very true to life. This book improves on being reread.

8 June 2002
      NEGROLAND: A MEMOIR (2015)

The author, a few years younger than I, spent her childhood in Chicago, and at some point our paths may have crossed though I don't remember.  I was interested in what she would have to say about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s.

This book starts as a memoir but becomes more of a compendium of the author's thoughts on various subjects, mostly pertaining to race.  We don't learn much about her life after high school.

Her father was a pediatrician, and she grew up among the most privileged African-American families in Chicago. The family had a boat, the two girls went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and it was assumed that they would be college-bound.

It is from this well-off perspective that Jefferson surveys the race situation.  What is lacking in her book is compassion for those less fortunate than herself.  Though she has contempt for the African-Americans who have tried to run from their history by passing for white or by imitating white ways, there is little attempt at understanding the world from the standpoint of the very poor people who have been the most tragic victims of race prejudice.

The book is a collection of previously published works, and it reads as if it was thrown together without much thought to organizing the selections.

I'm not sure why Jefferson has chosen to talk about "Negroes" and "Negroland" at a time when the term "Negro" has fallen into disuse, either.

I'm not sure what this book is but a memoir it isn't.

July 20, 2017


       JESUS' SON: STORIES (1992)

This writer, who seems to have been widely acclaimed, deals with the world of the drug-addicted. This is a very short collection of stories that seem chiefly to show the author’s wealth of experience with the sordid and the desperate. The stories lack point, lack plot, and lack character depth.

26 June 2000



Excellent stories about black people in Washington, D.C., in modern times.

11 September 1999

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