GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)

This controversial early version (completed in 1957) of To Kill a Mockingbird gives us Scout (now usually Jean Marie) at the age of 26, returning from her home in New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her family there--her father (the lawyer Atticus Finch), his sister and brother (her uncle Jack). Her brother Jem (Jeremy) is now dead, and Hank (Henry Clinton), is now a lawyer and like a son to Atticus. Hank is also determined to marry Jean Marie.

We get a view of life in a southern town in the 1950s, and Lee has captured its conversation and attitudes very competently. What she is trying to do here, though, is to use local color as a backdrop for the far more serious matter of the community's racism--viewed from Jean Marie's now-altered perspective.

Everything down home is fairly pleasant and straightforward-seeming until Jean Marie turns up at a "citizens' council" meeting where her father and Hank are in attendance, and, unbeknownst to them, she hears the speakers vehemently opposing integration and the Supreme Court.

It comes as a complete shock to Jean Marie to realize that those nearest and dearest to her are probably racists.
Even though she grew up in close proximity to these people, loving them, she must never have been aware of their views about race.

In setting up this situation Lee is flying in the face of all probability. I find it next to impossible to believe that a child growing up in a southern town in the 1940s-1950s would not have realized what her family's racial attitudes were, but that is by the way. For the purposes of the story, let's assume that this might have happened. Anything is possible.

Jean Marie's reaction is violent. She rages at Atticus and her Uncle Jack and Hank. She resolves to leave, without marrying Hank (whom she realizes she didn't really love anyway).

Unfortunately, Uncle Jack takes center stage at about this point, and his pontifications in defense of the traditional southern-white attitudes can be irritating in the extreme.  Lee seems to want older people in this novel to be sages. Even if their fundamental attitudes are bigoted and racist, their "wisdom" will redeem them to the point where the thoroughly repelled Jean Marie is ready to soften up.

This is where Lee performs some sleight-of-hand that strikes me as unfair trickery.  Having established Atticus and Hank at the citizens' council meeting that was clearly aimed at perpetuating racial segregation, she later makes it appear as if Atticus doesn't "really" (in his heart of hearts) believe in racism. Instead, we are asked to believe that he is so wise in the southern mores that--unlike Jean Marie in her youthful naivete--he feels he must go along with them in order to--what?  Understand his fellow man better? Help to lead his fellow citizens out of their bigotry and into a less harmfully provincial and exclusionary way of thinking?  It isn't clear.

What is clear is that Lee hasn't quite made up her mind about how this story should play out. On the one hand, Jean Marie herself is firmly opposed to racism. But is she to reject her entire history, her family, even the man she was going to marry?  Seeds of doubt about Hank have been planted early on, to be sure, but just what does Jean Marie have waiting for her in New York if she returns there, probably forever?

A novel written by a woman about a woman in the 1950s perhaps could not have ended with Jean Marie's walking away from hearth and home forever, but she comes very close to doing just that. In fact, if you look at the story without the mushiness  provided by Uncle Jack's lengthy and muddy speeches, that is what she is doing.

By now her rage has subsided and she is armed with the understanding her psychologizing uncle has poured into her ear, complete with a reference to Browning's very darkly despairing poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

The idea of a quest (as in the "Childe Roland" poem) by Jean Marie--a quest for the truth about herself and her background, even though it threatens to overwhelm her in its horror--runs through the story, which would have been a much better story without quite so much of Uncle Jack. Jean Marie could have reached her understanding by other means.

However, it isn't really fair to criticize a book in an early draft, a first attempt at a novel by a writer who went on to write a much better book. Go Set a Watchman is  interesting  for what it isn't but it also shows the Mockingbird characters, still very much themselves but in a different time.

I don't find it unbelievable that an Atticus Finch who fiercely defends an African-American at one time might also be the same Atticus Finch who goes along with southern ideas of white supremacy. We just didn't see that side of him in Mockingbird.

It would be interesting to know if Go Set a Watchman has been edited at all since 1957. 

15 November 2015

      J. D. SALINGER: A LIFE (2010)

Reading this book shortly after reading another biography of J. D. Salinger (by David Shields and Shane Salerno--reviewed here on January 20, 2015), I'm tempted to make comparisons, particularly since the Shields and Salerno book draws on the Slawenski biography.

Shields and Salerno have compiled a sloppy mishmash of every sensational detail they could dig up about J. D. Salinger, and this becomes starkly clear upon reading the far superior biography by Kenneth Slawenski.

Even though Slawenski's observations are sometimes trite, and apparently he had no access to the more restricted documents, he has put together a credible and respectful account of what is known about Salinger's life.

"Known," not conjectured. And what is known is actually enough to conclude that Salinger might have found his commitment to the religion of Vedanta inhibiting his creativity, for it is generally acknowledged that the work he produced after he began to feel that he had a religious mission was far less readable and universally appealing than his previous fiction had been.

Slawenski spares the reader any psychobabble or half-baked psychiatric diagnoses for Salinger. Instead he gives some factual details that might (or might not) indicate a very troubled person--and suggests that Salinger's war experiences might have been psychologically intolerable for him, as they would have been for many people.

Much light is shed on the inner workings of the New Yorker during Salinger's time, for he was first and foremost a New Yorker writer. The magazine had its established procedure for reviewing manuscripts sent to them for possible publication, but with the advent of William Shawn, Salinger was apparently the one writer who was allowed to bypass this procedure. Any fiction by Salinger was fast-tracked and assumed to have met the New Yorker's standards. In fact, at least once an entire issue was given over to a long Salinger work.

What this says about the existence of an "old boy" network even in the hallowed domain of a politically liberal periodical may surprise some readers, who might have expected more of a level playing field for all writers submitting manuscripts for consideration. But Shawn and Salinger were close friends, and Salinger dedicated one of his books to him.

This biographer treats his subject with compassion and understanding. He very tentatively suggests that Salinger might have adopted a reclusive life more as a ploy, a bid for still more attention (playing hard to get, as it were), than in a genuine attempt at barricading himself from the world, but he doesn't pursue this idea other than to point out that Salinger's reclusiveness did have the effect of piquing the curiosity of the media.

Slawenski provides sensible interpretations of Salinger's fiction as he goes along, and the result is a very readable and informative book.

27 February 2015

      SALINGER: A LIFE (2013)

Biographies almost always have an author--the biographer--telling a narrative of the person's life, and it is that author's words that shape the narrative.

These authors apparently decided to do things differently. Having made a movie about the life of the reclusive J. D. Salinger, they produced this lengthy book.

But they do very little narration. The book is a compendium of very short (a few sentences, usually) quotations from a wide assortment of people, and every now and then there is a paragraph by David Shields or Shane Salerno--not very often, however.

And instead of footnotes or other documentation to let us know the exact source of each quotation, we are sometimes given a very brief reminder about the speaker's identity, then assured at the end of the book that every quotation cited in it has been verified through an independent source (not named). And there is a long list of people at the end, with very brief descriptions of their connection with Salinger.

This is not a biography in the true sense of the word. It's a collection of quotations, which may or may not be accurate, from people, many of them celebrities.

The authors have one theory to promote about Salinger, and it isn't so very surprising: that Salinger's World War 2 experiences (Hurtgen Forest, D-day,the Battle of the Bulge, and  the opening up of a particularly horrifying sector of Dachau) governed his entire life thereafter, since (they reason) he probably had what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder and he did suffer a nervous breakdown just after the war. The authors see Salinger's most widely known work, the one that made him famous, The Catcher in the Rye, as "about" those war experiences.

Through some delving, and with no compunction about revealing intimate details, they have unearthed women who claim to have been involved with Salinger at various times.  He had a particular fondness for much younger women, even apparently girls in their teens, but here again the authors have a theory: that he would have been frightened by mature women and so he restricted himself to girls before they had matured, women young enough to seem innocent and "safe."  They come up with the somewhat fanciful notion that because Salinger had an undescended testicle, he would have felt self-conscious about this flaw and felt safer from criticism with inexperienced women. However, since, as Hemingway pointed out and is quoted as saying in the book, this flaw is easily corrected, one wonders if it wasn't corrected at some point and perhaps not the problem the authors assume it to have been.

Yes, Ernest Hemingway is here--becoming friendly with Salinger during World War 2, when Salinger appears to have been busily typing away (working on Catcher) in the midst of the chaos of war.

We also get glimpses of William Shawn, long-time editor of the New Yorker and evidently Salinger's principal champion even in a literary world that failed to appreciate the Glass family stories that succeeded Catcher.

There are some interesting bits of information here, if they can be believed. For instance, there is the report that publisher Robert Giroux rewrote history so as to put himself in a better light. Having promised J. D. Salinger that Harcourt Brace would publish Catcher, he reneged on the promise at the insistence of the higher-ups--then later retold the story by claiming that his anger about the way Salinger had been treated prompted him to leave Harcourt, when in fact he didn't leave until some years later.

Then there is a considerable section of this book devoted to assassins--three of them who supposedly were influenced in their killings by a reading of The Catcher in the Rye. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, is given particular attention, though how any of these sad stories is very relevant to Salinger's life isn't clear, and the authors simply muddy the waters by suggesting that there is violence implicit in the book and that some people--Chapman and the other two assassins--detected it. This comes close to calling Catcher a dangerous book, and the authors fail to make any case for this idea in spite of their sensational details about the assassins.

It seems unfair to have so many quotations from his former lovers when he himself is unable to give his side of the story, too. Of course these women who claim to have been involved with him are going to make themselves look good, and maybe all of them deserve to look good. But I somehow doubt it, if only because of Salinger's silence. What if he was the sort of honorable person who kept quiet about the quirks and faults he observed in his lovers--but his lovers had no such qualms in talking about him? And after all, these former lovers were getting attention when they opened up. It was a type of attention Salinger shunned and literally ran from.

He wanted to go on writing, not to become a celebrity. Fame wasn't his objective. Turning out good stories was. I wish that some of the people quoted in this book had had more respect for that.

All too much of this book depends on speculation--"would have" and "might have" occur entirely too often. And since Salinger did affect many influential people, many of them are uttering their theories and opinions here. The book is impressive in the extent of its name-dropping but otherwise seems a shoddy job.

10 January 2015



The celebrated South American author, who became a US citizen, has written a stirring memoir of her life, especially the later part. She addresses the work to her dead daughter Paula, who died of complications of porphyria in her 20s.

Isabel Allende has lived in Chile, Venezuela, and California, been married and divorced,  and has been married for many years to an American lawyer, Willie, who has several children by two previous marriages.  The complex family relationships are difficult to sort out but Allende guides us through the maze skilfully, including a couple of lesbian relationships in her family that involve children.

Allende is nothing if not assertive at times. According to her account, she parked on Willie's doorstep with her suitcase, and they were married eight months later.

By then, of course, she was in her 40s and was Isabel Allende, a well-established writer.

She seems never to have wanted to closet herself away from her family's problems in order to write. This account reads as if she has been very involved in her family's many ups and downs (the addiction of several of Willy's children, for example) every step of the way, taking people in as needed and trying to make suitable arrangements for them.

She makes it clear that she has never forgotten her South American roots even though she had to flee from Chile at the time of the Pinochet dictatorship. (She is the first cousin once removed of Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973.)

She doesn't spend much time on politics in this account. She is open to mystical ideas about other-worldly interventions in our everyday lives and believes in astrology. 

I would like to read more work by Isabel Allende.

11 July 2014
     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.

June 22, 2014


The mania for absurdly long book titles seems to have affected this author severely, but aside from the title length, this is a very readable and fair account of the life of C. L. Dodgson/Lewis Carroll.

    Lewis Carroll was not primarily an author of children's books. He was a mathematics instructor--and is also known for some contributions to mathematics.

The Alice books for which he is known were written for the entertainment of Alice Liddell, a little girl of his acquaintaince.

Photography was just evolving in Carroll's lifetime, and he was a very enthusiastic photographer though the process involved transporting a considerable amount of equipment around.

Jenny Woolf describes his photography efforts in detail and is at pains to demonstrate that, given Carroll's situation and upbringing and the styles in photography at the time, the photos of nude little girls that he took by no means suggest that he was a pedophile or even that he was overly attracted to young girls.

Indeed, the photos I have seen--and I don't know if these were all of them--hardly seem to warrant any brouhaha at all. Not one of them could be called provocative.
These are pre-pubescent girls, many of them draped, and not one in a suggestive pose.

The biographer's point about Carroll is that as the eldest son of a vicar, he was devoutly religious throughout his life so far as anyone has been able to determine.  The child, particularly the young girl, was idealized at the time as the quintessence of innocence, as anyone familiar with Romantic poetry can attest.

Carroll also believed that draping the human form was almost sinful as it was covering up God's handiwork. However, in compliance with the mores of the time, all but a few of the many photos taken by Carroll are heavily draped.

Woolf also points out that of the young girls whom Carroll photographed, most remained in contact with him and on friendly terms for many years into their adulthood, and not one account of any improper advances on Carroll's part has come to light.

She does have to deal with the fact that some of Carroll's personal records and diaries, covering over a decade, were apparently destroyed by his survivors.  She speculates on many possible reasons for the destruction of the records and concludes that since we can't know the reasons and there is no other evidence of his pedophilia, we cannot make assumptions about him.

It is regrettable that she has had to spend so much time explaining away the scandal-mongering charges that have been made. Even so, this seems to be a thorough account of the life of this remarkable literary figure.


A rather poorly written account of an actual case--the 2007 murder of a woman and her two daughters in their Connecticut home. The father, a doctor, was brutally beaten but survived.

The book's subtitle should alert the reader that this is going be a sensational tale, and perhaps the words "in cold blood" are meant to remind us of Truman Capote's book by that title, for it was also about a family that was murdered by strangers for no apparent reason.

One problem here is that the fate of the two murderers, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hays, had not yet been determined at the time of the book's publication.

Another problem is the author's heavy reliance on Komisarjevsky's own writings, including a diary. After having demonstrated that this is one very troubled man with a long, long criminal record, the author believes that Komisarjevsky has something to say that is worthy of the audience's attention?  It looks as if, for want of much to say about the victims (the Petit family), the author has padded his book out with quotations from Joshua.

However, a point is being made with this book--that the ineptitude of the US criminal justice system needs correction. McDonald stresses repeatedly that neither Hays nor Komisarjevsky should have been released from prison when they were, and that if they hadn't been released, very probably Jennifer Petit and the two daughters would still be alive.

4 May 2014

Having read only one work by W. Somerset Maugham--his semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage--I may not be qualified to discuss 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.

It seems well documented, in general, and 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--in my opinion--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 did not mind 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 like my objection to many biographies being written in recent years.  I question the usefulness of 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?

(April 21, 2014)

A fine collection of stories, including several largely autobiographical pieces at the end.

Often the stories--all with a Canadian setting--are told by a woman in the first person, and many of them involve family problems arising from the Depression of the 1930s. Some of the characters have been maimed--one with a lame leg due to polio, for instance.  One takes place in a TB hospital.

Munro's characters do not have happy lives, and at least one of them, Jackson in "Trained," seems inexplicably detached from people with whom he has had long associations.

Munro seems to be presenting the world as she sees it: filled with people whose lives may make no sense, may have very little joy in them, but here they are. She bears witness to those who haven't been able to speak for themselves.

In the final autobiographical piece, "Dear Life," we learn that as a child Alice Munro was often beaten by her father--and that the practice was "not uncommon" at the time (the 1930s). With these stories she has shown a few facets of this past time, with its own forms of cruelty and want.

March 23, 2014



The edition of this book that I read is said to be the 2012 revised paperback edition, and the reference notes were omitted. I trust that the notes refer to valid sources but sometimes the author's inflammatory tone made me a little dubious.

Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, and she clearly has an agenda.  She makes a very persuasive case for the gradual and little-noticed development of a "racial undercaste" in the United States in the last twenty or thirty years, as the war on drugs has moved forward at an alarming pace--and as many who have served time find themselves disenfranchised and unable to avail themselves of other advantages of US citizenship upon their release from prison. Alexander sees these developments as a concerted campaign to insure that large numbers of African-American men stay at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

One source she often draws upon, however, is the controversial Lerone Bennett, long-time editor of Ebony magazine, whose books have met with a mixed critical reception over the years. For instance, Eric Foner writing in the American Historian, expresses reservations in his review of his most recent book (on Lincoln).

And Alexander cites some very astonishing facts  comparing the number of incarcerations in the 2000s to those in the 1970s, as well as numerous facts about prison construction, numbers of felony convictions, and many others.

She insists that crimes that are tolerated "on one side of town" aren't tolerated in another side of town--white people have been able to traffic in illegal drugs for recreation with impunity while African-Americans are searched without due cause and arrested for possession on very slight or nonexistent evidence.

She points out that prisons are now a very big business, with a lot to lose from any diminution in the number of incarcerations.

One of her most alarming observations concerns the increasing militarization of the police--something any occasional watcher of the TV program Cops will have noted.  The military has been making weapons freely available to the police for quite some time.

This is a hard-hitting book, and, fortunately for the extremely important cause the author is backing, she doesn't adopt a shrill or strident tone though she is clearly outraged.

Outrage seems to be in order. 

Alexander is now in favor of reparations for those who have been harmed by the war on drugs, according to her statements quoted in a

--As a postscript here, it is well known that African-Americans have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. The war on drugs is the area where wrongful convictions have been particularly widespread lately. But then there was a former student of mine, Delbert Tibbs, who was wrongfully convicted (in Florida) of rape and murder and who served 3 years in prison, two of them on death row, before being freed:

--There's nothing at all new about the injustice African-Americans have suffered in this country.

Michelle Alexander's book, calling attention to the most recent manifestation of that injustice, should be read and discussed. Apparently it has attracted considerable attention. Good.

March 10, 2014
    SAN MIGUEL (2012)

     The author delved into historical records for material for this novel, set on the rugged island of San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The focus is on two families--the Waterses, who settled there in the 1880s, and the Lesters, who came along in 1930 and stayed until World War 2.

Marantha Waters and her husband Will, who was wounded at Chancellorsville, aren't well equiped for running a sheep farm, but that is what they are doing on San Miguel even though Marantha is very clearly dying of tuberculosis.

The very realistic descriptions of Marantha's physical state make for a compelling narrative. Boyle has made this woman's slow and horrible death from TB--and her heroic perseverance in spite of her suffering--vivid and horrifyingly compelling.  The reader realizes without having to be told in so many words that this woman is utterly a prisoner.

Another woman who seems to have very few choices open to her once she and her husband arrive on San Miguel many years later is Elise Lester.  This second part of the book, which could almost be two entirely separate novels, is much less successful than the first.

Herbie Lester, her husband, is gradually disintegrating into a form of dementia perhaps brought on by shell shock suffered during World War 1.  He and Elise are just as ill suited for running a sheep farm as the Waterses before them. She is 38 and has spent ten years working in the New York Public Library. And yet she copes with the primitive situation, going on to bear two daughters.

Somehow Herbie and Elise seem a bit lackluster compared to the Waterses, and the two daughters, though often in the picture, are little more than cardboard figures, saying and doing typical things but having little individual personality.

The two stories are linked together only once, briefly, by the very slender connection of Jimmy, a hired boy for the Waterses who is still around when the Lesters come. He has a few memories of the Waterses that he shares, and these are never referred to again after they come up.

Maybe Boyle wanted to show us just two families of those settlers who inhabited the island over the years--without connecting too many dots.

He has told an absorbing story and done it well.

11 January 2014

While reading this selection of stories by Alice Munro, whose fiction I have been reading for many years, I was happy to learn that she received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013.

Margaret Atwood has provided an introduction, and I would hazard a guess that  Margaret Atwood had a hand in compiling the extraordinary chronology that is appended. Many works of fiction include such a chronology, which usually provides a listing of the key events in the author’s life. But this one attaches to every listed year a notation of just one or two significant books published during that year. By a very odd coincidence, at least seven of the books in the chronology happen to be by Margaret Atwood. Surely Atwood has not been generally regarded as such a significant author as to justify the inclusion of so many of her works in such a list….

But this is by the way. These stories are all exceptionally fine—most set in Canada, some taking place in the 19th century, and all representing situations involving people coping with rather ordinary lives. None of the characters is a dazzling success. Munro’s world isn’t the sparkle and glitter of great prosperity.

“Save the Reaper,” for instance, gives us Eve, a woman of around 60 returning to a vacation spot recalled from her childhood, accompanied by her married daughter and her two children. The daughter is about to ditch her by returning to her husband instead of staying the agreed-upon three weeks, and the reader feels Eve’s increasing awareness of her own isolation closing in on her.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the final story in the collection, centers around Fiona, a woman of about 70 who seems to be afflicted with senile dementia and whose husband visits her regularly in a nursing home, where she has become so friendly with a former acquaintance, Aubrey, who happens to be in the same home—but only temporarily—that she treats her husband’s visits almost dismissively. Gradually we learn that the husband has been a lifelong philanderer, and the story has an extraordinary conclusion that seems to mete out something like justice to the four people involved (Fiona and  her husband Grant, and Aubrey and his wife Marian).

Even with its upbeat ending, the story manages to paint a grim picture of the realities of nursing homes, where dignity no longer exists—e.g., there is evidence that those who do the laundry there don’t bother to match up the clothes with their rightful owners.  Munro speaks of the nursing home atmosphere as “a haunted rigidity, as if people were content to become memories of themselves—final photographs.”

Alice Munro deserves to be more widely read and appreciated. Her carefully crafted stories take us inside the quietly tormented lives of women and girls to whom fortune has not been kind.

18 October 2013



A collection of 48 stories that appeared in The New Yorker between 1974 and 2006.  Because many of the stories have the "New Yorker ending"--that is, no ending at all--they have a sameness that falls just short of getting monotonous when they are gathered together in a volume. 

Many are slight, merely setting up a situation, then going nowhere. They are more like vignettes.

Beattie's characters tend to live in New York City or Virginia, drive cars, have partners who are leaving or have left, have difficult mothers, change careers, enjoy fine wines, have caterers, and get stoned.  Even though many of them are creatures of privilege, the author makes them understandable and real.  And often a story has dark overtones: a car crash, a dead child, AIDS.  

"The Confidence Decoy" is an interesting sketch showing the interaction between a more educated person (a lawyer) and  less educated ones (two movers the lawyer is temporarily involved with). The story is unified by the story of the confidence decoy, but we are constantly aware of the way in which the lawyer thinks he is communicating with the movers even though we suspect he isn't getting through to them, and the way in which what the movers say is constantly being misconstrued by the lawyer. 

18 September 2013

Although this book contains much sage advice on how to live less expensively, the author seems a bit too interested in promoting an earlier book of his on the same topic. Also, trying to be funny (he was voted the funniest person in his 4th-grade class), he takes liberties with quotations. He cites statistics frequently--with no references.

For instance, he states that the average home in the US (in 2010, presumably) is 1,650 square feet. Where does this figure come from?

That's an astonishing figure, to my way of thinking. Have we as a people really reached a point where we feel we need that much space simply for living?

It's entirely possible.

Another quibble: The author gives respectful mention of the "Frugal Gourmet" TV cooking show, but I wonder about the wisdom of recommending this show since Jeff Smith,  the "Frugal Gourmet" of the program, disappeared from the scene some years ago under a cloud of accusations of sexual molestation:

A bit more fact-checking would have made this a better book.

25 September 2013

An assortment of interesting stories, often with bizarre themes.  "Admiral" involves the cloning of an Afghan hound. The longest story, almost a novella, "The Wild Child," must have been based on actual accounts of Victor, the "wild child" of Aveyron.

I kept wondering how closely the author followed the known facts about this child.  There is an amazing amount of detail about how Victor behaved and how and what he ate.  

24 August 2013