July 31, 2012

Book review: “Outliers: The Story of Success” By Malcolm Gladwell

I found “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell to be quick and entertaining to read — and ultimately dissatisfying. Part of it has to do with Gladwell’s glibness. And part with the sense he conveys of having discovered some inner secret to life.
July 24, 2012

Book review: “The Giant O’Brien” By Hilary Mantel

Midway through “The Giant O’Brien,” I was more than a little lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to take Hilary Mantel’s tale of the 18th-century Irish giant Charles O’Brien who comes to London to exhibit his massiveness and make his fortune — and crosses paths with John Hunter, a renowned surgeon, scientist, collector of bones and dissectionist.
July 22, 2012

Book review: “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell

Perhaps the best way to write about Paul Fussell’s 1975 masterpiece “The Great War and Modern Memory” would be to simply list willy-nilly some of the myriad insights, observations, facts, quotations and other interesting stuff that Fussell artfully, with ever so much care, throws on the page. When he died in May, one of the many British obituaries for Fussell, an American, described “The Great War and Modern Memory” as “magisterial.” I’m afraid, though, that the word suggests that Fussell’s book in some way gives a complete picture of World War I and its impact the past century, that it in some way fits all that into an understandable context, a frame in which the events of the war and its after-effects all have a place. Really, though, “The Great War and Modern Memory” is something very different — a hodge-podge of material. And that’s a good thing.
July 20, 2012

Book review: “Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People” — Fictional character sketches by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters

Now, let’s take these characters and make a novel! Ooops! I’m afraid I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I should tell you first what I’m talking about — “Imagined Lives,” a wonderful hybrid of a book newly published by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Since 1856, the Gallery has been collecting portraits. In some cases, though, a portrait of, say, Mary Queen of Scots has turned out to be, well, not her. So the Gallery has a bunch of paintings once thought to be of famous or semi-famous people, now more honestly described as being of unknown people. Or as Tarnya Cooper says in an essay, “lost souls whose quest for immortality has proved only partially successful.” In other words, their portraits were striking enough or beautiful enough or quirky enough that they’ve survived centuries, even if the names of the sitters have been forgotten. Imagined bios Last December, Cooper brought together 14 such paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries for a six-month exhibit at the Gallery — with an added twist. Eight prominent writers — John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters — took one […]
July 18, 2012

Being a work-in-progress in the post-college world

Hello, newly minted college graduate. How are you liking real life? Scary, right? Especially for a young adult. Gone are the days when a parent could make a decision for you. And you’ve got some big decisions to make. To start making. That’s the thing to remember about decisions. They really do affect the course of your life. At the same time, they’re never final and absolute. What kind of work will you do? Where will you live? How will you live? Who will you love? What sort of person will you be? All these are questions that you have to begin answering. And each answer you come up with will begin to define you as your own person. None of these questions, however, will ever be fully answered. From the moment of your birth until your death, you’re a work in progress.
July 14, 2012

Book review: “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” By Isabel Wilkerson

The North wasn’t the Promised Land. Or was it? The North didn’t have Jim Crow laws written into the books to keep African-Americans down. But it did have James Crow, a term for the attitudes of white Northerners and their unions and government officials and institutions limiting the extent to which a black person could be free. In Chicago, for instance, an African-American could vote, but, throughout most of the 20th century, he’d better not try to move into the Bridgeport neighborhood. And then there were the race riots in Northern cities, sparked during much of U.S. history by lower-class immigrant whites against blacks. “These violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands […]
July 13, 2012

Book review: “Revolt in 2100” by Robert Heinlein

Initially, I wondered if, in 1953, Robert Heinlein had had the still-very-new state of Israel in mind when he published “Revolt in 2100,” a collection of two short stories and a novella. That’s because the novella “ ‘If This Goes On…,’ ” which opens the book, centers on the efforts to overthrow a theocratic, totalitarian United States of America, governed by a Prophet Incarnate. I thought at first that maybe Heinlein was thinking about the potential of a faith-centered nation, like Israel, evolving into something repressively rigid. But then I realized that Israel was nothing more than a gleam in Zionist eyes in 1939 and 1940 when the novella and the other stories first saw the light of day. So I was left thinking that, for Heinlein, maybe the Prophet Incarnate was a stand-in for the Japanese emperor and the quasi-religious governmental structure that supported him. Or, more likely, for Adolf Hitler, with the religious element of the Prophet’s regime serving as a parallel to Nazism. In this case, the scapegoats of the Prophet’s regime, called pariahs, would be parallels for the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other “non-peoples” identified and targeted by Hitler in the Holocaust. Of course, it really […]
July 5, 2012

Book review: “The Bear” by William Faulkner

“The Bear,” which was included in William Faulkner’s collection of seven fiction pieces in “Go Down, Moses” in 1942, has been called a short story. It’s also been labeled a novella. At 40,000 words or so, it is considered by many to be a novel. (Indeed, I read the piece in a collection titled, “Nine Short Novels.”) To further complicate matters, “Go Down, Moses” has been thought of as a grouping of related short stories, but Faulkner contended that these stories, taken together, formed a novel. I haven’t read the other six pieces in “Go Down, Moses,” but, about “The Bear,” I can say it’s something very much like an epic poem. The Iliad is about a war. The Odyssey is about a journey. “The Bear” is about something internal, an inner rot, a peculiarly American sin, the Original American Sin, if you will — slavery. This is the corruption that slavery wreaks upon the whites who see themselves as masters, and upon their children and children’s children — often, as in this story, brothers and sisters, cousins and kin of different colors. And not just slavery, but that particular American skill of turning land into real estate, the soil […]
July 4, 2012

Book review: “Lives of Rembrandt: Sandrart, Baldinucci and Houbraken,” introduced by Charles Ford

Rembrandt had been dead for half a century when Arnold Houbraken wrote in one of the earliest biographies of the painter: And as to his female nudes, the noblest subject for the artist’s brush, the representation of which earned the fullest attention of the most celebrated old masters, well, as the proverb says, “too sad a song either to be sung or to be played.” His nudes are all sickening displays and one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could have been so perverse in the selection of what to paint. Later, Houbraken quotes poet Andries Pels: If, as he sometimes did, he painted a naked woman, He took no Grecian Venus as his model but rather A washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn. He called this idiocy “copying nature” And everything else vain ornament. Flabby breasts, Contorted hands, even the creases left by straps On the body, or garters on the leg, They must all be copied else nature was not satisfied, His nature, that is, which tolerated neither rules Nor principles of proportion in the human figure. So, here is Rembrandt, one of the giants of Western art, being excoriated for his […]
July 1, 2012

Book review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Near the end of “The Long Earth,” after a long quest, the three central characters come face to face with an entity that one describes as “a destroyer of worlds. An eater of souls.” Or, as another more bluntly puts it, “the end of the world” for humans. That’s a lot for a reader to bite off and gobble down. The end of the world? Really? Yet, it’s a measure of the skill and imagination of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that, by this point in the novel, the reader doesn’t hear melodramatic echoes from bad sci-fi flicks. Instead, the reader is more likely to hear echoes from J. Robert Oppenheimer who, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, recalled the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”