01 July 2005




By 2007 the author's observations may seem somewhat dated, since the current evangelist Christian scene and the self-help movement have changed slightly, but her points are still worth considering.

Wendy Kaminer sees an alarming relationship between the type of submission required by the self-help movement and the tenets of totalitarianism. She believes that the self-help movement probably originated with Alcoholics Anonymous, with its emphasis on acknowledgment of a higher power, but she finds AA to be a very useful organization for its purposes. Her quarrel is with the later offshoot groups that have sprung up, encouraging people in a sense of victimhood: Overeaters Anonymous, EST, etc.

These groups believe in feelings but not in rational thought, and this disconnect is Kaminer's bone of contention. Groups and books that preach the "feel good/stop blaming yourself" doctrine may have their uses but ultimately they are saying nothing.

A particular target of Kaminer's criticism is James Dobson, of "Focus on the Family." Reading Kaminer's book, with its skewering of the pundits of the evangelical Christian and self-help movements, was refreshing, in an era when these pundits are often quoted in the media as if they are oracles.

Bravo, Wendy Kaminer.

8 August 2007
    TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN: THE LIFE AND                                   EXTRAORDINARY AFTERLIFE OF HUMPHREY BOGART         (2011)

I didn't expect to find this book to be so very interesting but I was surprised by how absorbing it was. I'm only a moderate Bogart enthusiast, for one thing, and I can't recall ever reading a biography of a movie star before.   

The trouble with the lives of most U.S. movie stars seems to be that success destroys them.

Humphrey Bogart was no exception, though his downfall wasn't nearly as spectacular as some others' have been.

Four marriages and a serious drinking problem seem to have been his undoing, and yet in spite of his decline he kept turning in good performances as an actor. He was a man of considerable courage and conscience--a decent man who felt no need to promote himself as a Hollywood commodity.

The most interesting parts of this book involve the author's evaluation of the movies Bogart appeared in, with special attention to the best-known ones.  There are also many interesting anecdotes involving Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Warner, and other celebrities.

The author doesn't pretend that his subject was a moral paragon. Bogart in drunken scenes, Bogart enjoying the high life, his apparent homophobia--all are touched upon here. Then there is, sadly,  Bogart the victim of esophageal cancer, which killed him at the age of 57.

He left a legacy of many fine movies--as well as some memorable witticisms. My favorite is his reference to  Forest Lawn cemetery--ridiculed by Evelyn Waugh in his 1948 novel, The Loved One--as "Disneyland for stiffs."

Kanfer follows up the life story with a brief account of the Bogart cult that sprang up later, mainly among college students.

10 June 2013



The author tells the story in her mother's voice--a true account of her mother's life during and just after World War II. 

In a Jewish family in Vienna, she was caught up in the upheavals created by the Nazis--and the family, facing deportation and having already lost most of their possessions to the Nazis, migrate to Shanghai, where there is a Jewish community.

The living conditions in Shanghai go from bad to worse as the Japanese wield increasing power there--and are going along with Hitler's programme for the Jews.

Liberation comes eventually with the war's end, but the Communist takeover in China means almost certain hard times for the family once more. With the help of relatives already settled in Canada, they arrange to resettle once again--and her second child (Vivian's brother) is born at sea.

This is a sad but compelling story, well told. The author could have used a better editor now and then, but the story she tells is  extraordinary.

13 October 2012


     AT HOME IN MITFORD: THE MITFORD YEARS, VOL. 1             (1994)

The first in a series about a small town in North Carolina. Its main character is the Episcopal rector, Father Tim.

The author alienated me early on with her folksy, heart-of-gold boy of  eleven who often mentions "taking a dump." And the rector and several of the heart-of-gold characters are frequently in the praying mode. Some readers (myself among them) will find this goody-goodyism cloying.

Southern race problems seem never to have existed in this world--the large cast of characters includes one devoted black servant of the Aunt Jemima stereotype.

This prolific and popular writer offends me.

29 April 1999



This is apparently a true account of the author's East Texas childhood (1960s?-1980s?) with both parents succumbing to severe drinking problems. It is well written, in general, with a humor and a grace that keep the narrative from being mawkish or self-pitying.

One quibble: The author--and her editors--have trouble with the "lay-lie" distinctions--an annoyance in an otherwise good book, one that probably should be read by every young adult who thinks his own childhood was deprived.

24 October 2002



This is an excellent true account by a young woman who spent nearly two years diagnosed with mental illness and locked up at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. 

3 July 1999



This interesting account  is based on a Dutch doctor’s notes about his practice involving patients in a nursing home for the terminally ill, where he often assists in legal euthanasia. 

The author, born in 1947, lives in Amsterdam.

7 September 1999


This autobiography by the mother of President Clinton is a well written and interesting account of an eventful life. Married four times and determined to enjoy life, Virginia views her own faults and accepts herself as she is. She admits to being a party animal with a special fondness for playing the horses. There is a frankness, an out-in-the-open quality to her story that makes it highly believable and refreshing.

She says very little about Hillary and Chelsea, and there is only one reference to race relations in the entire narrative--surprising for someone who lived her entire life in southwest and central Arkansas. The one reference is to an incident that is clearly meant to show that this family was not guilty of race prejudice....

Bill Clinton's half-brother (ten years younger), Roger, spent time in prison for trafficking in cocaine. Their mother believes that her maternal instincts had led her to "enable" Roger and to overlook some obvious signs of the trouble he was involved in. She blames herself, at least in part, for Roger's problems.

I liked this straightforward woman. She presents herself as she was, acknowledging her shortcomings without being unduly apologetic.

The book appears to have been written when she was already under a death sentence from the cancer that ended her life.

21 June 2007



As someone who's been reading Pauline Kael's movie reviews for many years--sometimes as they appeared in the New Yorker, sometimes as compiled in the form of several books, I was interested in knowing more about how this often-controversial writer developed and did her work.

This book reveals that Kael was resolutely detached from academia, and that her early years involved a struggling family who had suffered a sharp decline during the Depression.

Kael had a daughter whom she raised by herself. The father remains a hazy figure throughout the narrative, and it is unclear whether the daughter had any contact with him. She seems to have been primarily Pauline Kael's helper until her marriage.

This account of Kael's life makes no attempt at enhancing its subject. Kael could be a cruel critic and an unfair player in her determination to get to the top of the world of film criticism and stay there.

Kael's movie reviews sometimes struck me as wrong-headed but that merely says that I didn't share her opinion. Her admiration for Marlon Brando's acting, for instance, is beyond my comprehension.

Her enthusiasm for movies that showed considerable violence is harder to criticize. While I dislike movies with violence in them, I like to think that we don't need a censor banning them just because some of us (maybe most of us) find them distasteful and maybe even harmful.

The argument has been made that if you witness enough violence, you become inured to it. It no longer shocks or horrifies you because you have been shocked and horrified to the point of exhaustion.

On the other hand, too many standard Westerns were fed to the American public in immense doses over many years--movies where sharp-shooting was admired and the blood and guts that resulted were minimized or not shown at all.  Roy Rogers and Dale Evans would be sitting majestically on their horses without a hair out of place and their cowboy clothes crisply clean and neatly pressed. As for the horses, they hardly ever had a problem other than a need for a new shoe. The carnage was just swept behind a cactus or under a tumbleweed.

Kael, who incidentally was originally from California, recognized that it was time for the Western to be redesigned, for the audience to be hit with some hard reality: that the West was won with blood and violence, murder and theft. She had no problem with movies showing harsh grim scenes--she welcomed them as part of an attempt at abolishing the lies about our history that have been fed to many of us in school and at the movies (and on TV).

The author mentions repeatedly that Kael surrounded herself with a group of fans, budding movie critics who came to be known as "the Paulettes."  Like many a successful academic, she didn't mind being followed by a band of disciples, even if it caused her to look all too ego-driven.

However, given the work Kael was doing, and her interest in, not just her own responses to a movie, but in the audience's reactions as well, it seems understandable that she might have welcomed a group of people around her with whom she could bounce ideas and observations back and forth.

Blunt and forthright, for all of her faults, Kael has always seemed like a breath of fresh air in the world of criticism. She's not afraid to rely on her visceral reactions to films.

The book sheds light on Kael's close ties with many people in the film industry, but in general this account could have been better written. 

5 April 2016


    HOME TOWN  (1999)

This account  centers around the lives of several residents of Northampton, Massachusetts, with special emphasis on Tommy O'Connor, a policeman whose best friend and fellow cop, Rick Janacek, is accused of molesting his daughter. O'Connor feels obliged to testify for the prosecution in the case because Rick has acknowledged a drinking problem so severe that he was having blackouts and therefore could not have known what he might have done. The reporting is very nonjudgmental throughout this book.

24 July 2004



This highly praised novel has many admirable qualities.  It is tightly constructed, focusing in turn on three story lines. The seemingly separate characters turn out to have lives that interconnect in surprising ways.

Two of the central characters are women who are so strikingly similar, however, that I kept expecting them to merge somehow, if only by meeting one another and finding how similar they are. But Deanna and Lusa don't meet. They are both so intensely committed to saving endangered species and preserving and appreciating the wilderness in this world, though, that they are almost too much of a good thing.  As the novel develops we find still another woman, Nannie Rawley, who is equally involved in getting on her soapbox and preaching against pesticides and for wild animals.

I kept wishing for a more interesting story and less preaching and information. The novel all too often seems like a very transparent showcase for the author's considerable knowledge of biology, and her characters are tiresomely long-winded mouthpieces for her perspectives on nature and the environment. Even when a reader shares these views, such a large helping of information about moths, snapping turtles, chestnut trees, and other flora and fauna is too much.

One comes away feeling stuffed to the gills with Kingsolver's store of information and her very definite opinions about nature.  What I really had wanted was an interesting story about interesting people.

For people we get a tomboy named Crystal who is entirely too much like Harper Lee's Scout and Mark Twain's Huck to be very original, and a couple of crusty  but amusing Appalachian old folks--and a couple of horny women whose adventures in bed the author seems to enjoy describing in detail.

Her main point in the book is that summer can be a time when the urge to procreate is irresistible. All right, fine. But why do so many contemporary writers feel obliged to describe human couplings in vivid detail? When explicit descriptions of sex began appearing in fiction and poetry--after the initial shock wore off--authors were experimenting with this new territory, but by now it's becoming clear that there are only so many ways to describe sexual relations, and they've all been used. It's a rare book that can include explicit sex scenes that are  very original or that contribute much to the rest of the story.

 What about letting the characters have a few closed doors--and leaving a few things to the reader's imagination?

20 October 2010


This is an absorbing novel about a missionary in the Congo and his family--a wife and four daughters--told from the family members’ various points of view. It is a damning indictment of American Christian missionaries’ efforts in the Third World, but subtly stated and therefore all the more effective.

24 January 2002


For a long time now every man, woman, and child in Alaska has automatically received a  yearly bonus just for living in a state where oil was found years ago. If this situation hadn't given rise to at least a few opportunists over the years, I'd have been more than surprised as the bonus is quite substantial (I believe, around $1,000/year).

This book is an account of one person who was particularly successful in availing himself of Alaska's bountiful system: one Bobby Hale, who called himself Pilgrim (as in Pilgrim's Progress), the son of an FBI agent.  He began his family in the community of Taos, New Mexico--at which time he was active in transcendental meditation. Eventually he became an ardent Christian, one who was sure that God was speaking directly to him and who expected the end time to be just around the corner. He ended up in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska with his wife, appropriating some National Park Service land to house his growing family--and their animals, snowmachines, and other paraphernalia.

Eventually there were seventeen children born to Papa Pilgrim and his wife "Country Rose." No one was ever allowed to be seen naked but the family seems to have slept jammed into one or two beds over the years.

Papa Pilgrim's word was law, and he trained the family to address him as "Lord."  At first he was home schooling the children but objected to the books--and as a result all of the children except the oldest daughter Elishaba grew up illiterate.

The author points out that Alaska has no laws mandating schooling for children: "The parents have complete authority."

In the Pilgrim household, so much freedom from community involvement was a license for child abuse and neglect.

For a number of years, the small community of McCarthy, of which the Pilgrim family were a peripheral part, heartily approved of their obvious piety, their sunny helpful spirit, their "one of us" Christian acceptability.

But time passed and, though the true brutality and tyranny of the household remained hidden, there were enough instances of questionable behavior on the family members' part to cause even the strongest supporters to back off. The Pilgrims, though giving folk-music concerts that pleased their audiences, were also a gun-toting group of bullying thugs.

However, there were others in the community who had their complaints about the National Park Service and who felt that it was an example of government control, an impingement on their rights, and the Pilgrims became their cause.

One daughter, Elishaba, however, was to escape--at the ripe age of 29--and make known the truth about what went on inside the Pilgrims' private lives. Wanting to father 21 children but estranged from his wife, Pilgrim turned to his own daughter, Elishaba, to provide ancillary excitement so that, as he claimed, he could continue to impregnate her mother.

These sessions with Elishaba often involved brutal beatings so severe and catastrophic that she suffered permanent physical damage. He often beat his other children very brutally as well.

Another devout Christian family, the Buckinghams (parents and nine children), took in some of the Pilgrim children in their flight from the prison of their family. This association proved so fortuitous that a couple of the Buckingham children married Pilgrims.

Papa Pilgrim had his day in court--and went to prison, where he died. We don't find out whether his warped theology died with him or whether some of the children remained the disciples he must have hoped for though it sounds as if all of them were relieved to be out of his clutches.

How such a violent, probably insane man can seize control over  his entire large family because of the isolation of a life in the wilderness is an absorbing and horrifying story. 

The author seems in thorough command of the facts--having followed the situation for a number of years as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.

5 June 2015


    I WILL BEAR WITNESS: A DIARY OF THE NAZI YEARS,             1933-1941 (1998)

This fascinating diary came out in English translation (from the German, by Martin Chalmers) only a few years ago. Victor Klemperer (cousin of the renowned conductor, Otto Klemperer), an "assimilated" German Jewish philologist, lived with his non-Jewish wife Eva in Dresden during the Nazi years, and he decided to keep a journal of daily experiences in the Third Reich. 

Having read a number of Holocaust accounts by survivors and eyewitnesses, I came to this book with some awareness of the horrors of Nazi Germany. However, Klemperer's book provides a unique perspective on the scene. Klemperer is evidently a very intelligent, reflective, and well-educated observer of the daily indignities suffered under Hitler. He is also a victim of many of these indignities and brutalities, although I am fairly certain that he escaped being shipped to a concentration camp. 

He makes the reader keenly aware of the shortages of basic supplies and of how adroitly citizens devised ways around some of the more oppressive rules in the Third Reich. He himself was imprisoned for eight days merely for accidentally neglecting to darken one window during a blackout, and he gives a detailed account of his experiences in prison, including the progression of his own feelings about incarceration from fear to acceptance and resignation to elation at the prospect of freedom.

While giving details about the daily struggle for transportation, money, essentials, and communication, he also keeps a running record of what he calls "LTI" (for "Lingua Tertii Imperii"--the language of the Third Reich). He carefully notes the most popular Nazi terms and gives examples of the frequency of their use. He seems completely aware that the Reich government is systematically lying to the populace--about German "victories" in Russia and elsewhere, for example.

Volume 2 of his journal, covering 1941-1945, is also available.

6 January 2003

    THE LESSER EVIL: THE DIARIES OF VICTOR                               KLEMPERER, 1945-1959 (1999)

Victor Klemperer's diaries from the end of the war up until the time of his death (he died in 1960) reveal his very bleak perspective on Germany and on his role there. Plagued by heart problems, he is grimly aware of his limited remaining time.

His wife Eva dies, and he remarries--a much younger woman--though he constantly feels guilty about being so fortunate.

Immediately after the war, he and Eva just barely scraped by, often apparently near starvation.  He describes in considerable detail the intricacies of re-establishing himself in an academic post--a matter that is heavily influenced by politics.

He wryly accepts his new post-war function as someone who can testify to the anti-fascism of people he knew.  People come to him and plead for a word from him.

The book is generously supplied with explanatory footnotes though the translation leaves something to be desired at times.

25 August 2012



The author, a contributing editor at New York magazine, reports here on his investigation of the disappearance and murder of four (or five) women in their twenties on Long Island.  All of the women were involved in sex work, usually as "escorts" who advertised their services on craigslist.

The way the narrative is told, shifting suddenly from one victim to another, makes it hard to follow, and there are many  names to keep track of, but the book touches on some very important problems.

There is considerable evidence here that law enforcement failed to devote as prompt attention to these cases as they normally would have because of the women's low status as prostitutes.

The author provides a vivid picture of the life of escorts, the dangers they face (which are considerable even in the best of situations), and the ways in which prostitution has changed since the Internet has made it possible for each person to promote herself without using a madam, a pimp, or an escort service.

The author avoids passing judgment and lets the stories unfold. I wonder how useful it is to include segments of Facebook postings in an account of this kind, however. There are many of these in the book, and they contribute little to it.

4 December 2014



So often a follow-up book like this one is mainly a repetition of the previous book but there isn't much repetition here.  Marie Kondo again tells about how she set about tidying up her family's belongings (without their permission) at an early age and about how her near-obsession with tidying led to her nervous breakdown at one point, but this is necessary background that makes her more understandable.

Here she addresses bathrooms, for instance--how to declutter one, how to clean one and how to maintain one.

She stresses the importance of giving every possession its own "home"--which amounts to the old advice many people have heard from their mothers, and though it's old advice it's still  valid: "A place for everything, and everything in its place."

She believes in treating one's belongings as if they are sentient creatures and makes it clear that this belief has its roots in Japanese tradition. Before discarding an item, one should apologize to it and thank it for the joy and usefulness that it brought.  It is almost by way of appeasing a god that inheres in the object.

Our things are important, and Marie Kondo's recognition of that may ultimately be helpful in efforts to eliminate or reform nursing homes.  Although Kondo makes no mention of nursing homes, one of the saddest aspects of residence in a "home" is that as a rule the resident has to be separated from most of the things that always enhanced that person's existence. If we can acknowledge that our belongings matter far more to us than we might want to admit, we would go a long way toward preventing the wholesale abandonment of belongings that has to take place whenever a person enters a nursing home.

As Marie Kondo says: "Objects that have been steeped in memories carry a much clearer imprint of special times. Objects that been steeped in memories keep the past crystal clear within our minds."

12 December 2016


Marie Kondo has made a name for herself with her expertise in helping people to solve the problems posed by having too many belongings.  She seems to have had a special gift for organizing and decluttering since she was a little girl. This book of hers has been a best-seller.

She insists that we should keep only those things that "spark joy" in us when we see them. She sees the process of decluttering as potentially transformative. She enters into an almost personal relationship with inanimate objects, talking to her clothes and stroking her plants.  She would say that they probably have a sort of life of their own, for she notes the musty, underused smell and appearance of clothes and linens that have lain on shelves without being touched for too long and concludes that they appreciate being handled and used.

It's a bit whimsical for those who think of things as just things but she has a point. Many people do hang onto things they don't need and tend to have far too many possessions. Garages and vehicles and basements seem readily available as dumping areas, and the average size of a house bought in the US has increased appreciably in the last few decades.

Her methods are drastic, and I don't always agree with her. She favors abandoning the whole idea of off-season storage of clothes, for instance, but fails to address the problem of moths.  If woolens aren't mothproofed in some way, they are apt to be destroyed by moths. The best way to mothproof them is to put them away for the warmer months in sealed storage units. But that is just my opinion.

She sees no point in saving spare buttons. I have saved buttons all my life--not every button but those that looked as if they'd be hard to replace or those that were special in some way.  My mother had also saved buttons, and I have her button collection added to mine.  I have used those buttons many times over the years. A doll garment, a replacement button for some items of clothing that had lost a button--and many buttons take up very little space.

She advocates tossing out all instructions connected with newly purchased items (clocks, radios, toasters, TVs, phones, etc.), asserting that you'll never read them anyway and if you do need to know something you can call the company or go online.

Here again I'd quibble.  The instruction manual online isn't always so easy to find and it may not be quite the right one for your particular product. Calling the company is apt to lead to a series of calls leading nowhere because you'll need to be very very skilled at describing exactly what grommet you're talking about over the phone when you're trying to assemble a cabinet.

Still, I liked Marie Kondo. She seems cheerful and upbeat, and her heart is in the right place. She sees the importance of living a life free of clutter and unnecessary knickknacks. More power to her.

14 March 2016




This is an account of life in the Ida B. Wells public housing project in Chicago, with an emphasis on the effect of this restrictive environment on the children compelled to dwell in it.

The city of Chicago, perhaps seeking to deal with the influx of African-Americans from the south, built rows and rows of high-rise buildings extending many blocks on the south side of the city, and in those poorly maintained, anonymous excuses for shelter, many black families spent their lives. Kotlowitz has provided a window into several of those lives.



Anne Frank wasn't the only diarist in hiding during the Nazi occupation of vast areas of Europe. There was also Clara Kramer, a young girl who kept a diary while she and thirteen other Jewish residents of the town of Zolkiew in Poland lived jammed together in a bunker with primitive arrangements for food preparation, plumbing and electricity for 18 months.

Astonishingly, the house was often occupied by a Volksdeutscher family, the Becks, who entertained SS officers right over the heads of the hidden Jews, the group including children so young that keeping them absolutely quiet was a problem.

Clara Kramer's story is rich in specific detail about how the daily problems of living in such an extreme situation were confronted. It is one of the most remarkable and touching accounts of the Holocaust experience that I've read.

February 21, 2012



     THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE: THE RISE AND                       DECLINE OF AMERICA’S MAN-MADE LANDSCAPE                  (1993)

This book generally makes a good argument for a less impersonal design of buildings and cities--though I have trouble agreeing with the author that building apartments above commercial establishments is a good idea.

9 August 2001

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