May 27, 2013

Book review: “Every Third Thought” by John Barth

Two-thirds of the way through Every Third Thought, John Barth has his central characters, the married couple of George Irving Newett and Amanda Jean Todd, allude to some lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As Scene I ends, Prospero mentions his plan to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” These lines arise in the context of George’s reminiscences of his childhood friend Ned Prosper who had a habit of saying “On second thought…” and “On third thought….” and who died (or, at least, disappeared) at the age of 24 while still working on (or, at least, talking about) his Great American Novel-in-progress which may, as George ruminates, have been a fictitious fiction. No manuscript was ever found. “Aiaiai!” as George says at several points in this 2011 novel. (I am pretty sure it is pronounced “aye-yi-yi.” But maybe not.) Prospero/Prosper, indeed!
May 22, 2013

Book review: “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland

I originally read Sherwin B. Nuland’s book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter in 1995 when I was in my mid-forties and my mother was dying of congestive heart failure and a host of other diseases. Ever since, I’ve recommended it to virtually anyone who would listen as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time around, it was scarier. For one thing, I’m a couple decades closer to my own end than I was back in the ‘90s. For another, I’m the sort who takes descriptions of health problems and diseases much too much to heart, seeing each symptom in my body and getting anxious about it. Fairly quickly, though, I got over that. Nuland describes in exquisite and vibrant detail so many symptoms and so many ways in which the body breaks down that I didn’t feel so threatened by them. Or, maybe better put, I felt equally threatened by all of them, so they sort of canceled each other out. And his bottom-line message is still the same as I remembered it: Death is part of life.
May 12, 2013

Book review: “The Development” by John Barth

Gerry Frank has made an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand. Dick Felton is 75, and his wife Sue is in her late 60s. They’ve had a good life together, but now, as Dick says, they’re facing “the crappy last lap.” Tim Manning’s wife Marge — his “without-whom-nothing life partner” — is gone, and Tim is fed up to here with the idea of Assisted Living. He searches his keyboard and all of its buttons. “There ought to be one for Assisted Dying…,” he writes. John Barth’s 2008 book The Development has the slim, compact appearance that you’d expect for a volume of nine short stories. But — bam! — these stories carry a wallop. No, I don’t mean they pack O’Henry-like sudden-twist endings. Actually, in some cases, the stories don’t quite end, or don’t end at all. The angel of The End What I mean is that Barth — that old warhorse of storytelling and metafiction — is wrestling like Jacob with the angel of The End. I.e., the end of me, the end of you, the end of him, the end of […]
May 7, 2013

Book review: “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War” by James Bradley

OMG! What a bad, bad man Theodore Roosevelt was! I mean, like, golly, he basically ruined the entire 20th century…..and he died in 1919, well before the century really got rolling. I mean, James Bradley, writing in his 2009 book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, tells me and his other readers: • That good ole T.R. was responsible for the rise of Mao Tse-tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (page 289). • That Roosevelt — known as the Rough Rider for his exploits in Cuba in the Spanish-American War — was responsible for World War II (page 251). • That the 26th President of the United States whose slogan was: “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was responsible for more than 30 million deaths in that conflict (page 320). Yet, there Roosevelt is — up there on Mount Rushmore with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Who knew? Let’s get out the jackhammers, and disappear his face off the mountain! Wildly over-stated Okay, enough with the sarcasm.
May 1, 2013

Book review: “Photobooth” by Babbette Hines

I want to talk about eyes. But, first, I want to thank Babbette Hines for the way she’s put together this quirky look into human nature, her 2002 book Photobooth. I have no doubt that she laid out these 700-plus images in a way that pleased her. Which is to say that I recognize that these self-portraits didn’t land randomly on the pages. But Hines has retained a sense of randomness. And that’s as it should be. Sure, she does group some soldiers together, and some men together, and some kids. She does some groupings. But she doesn’t try to ram these wonderfully idiosyncratic images into tight categories. There is a nice asymmetric rhythm to the design of this book. From page to page, you’re never sure what you’re going to find next. That’s always a positive. An immediacy of image-making As Hines points out in her short introduction, the photobooth was invented in 1925, and, in an era long before digital cameras, it provided an immediacy of image-making that was unique.