March 29, 2015

Book review: “Turner” by Peter Ackroyd

In Turner, his short biography of Joseph Mallard William Turner, Peter Ackroyd tells of a visit the 19th century British painter made to the estate of his patron and friend Walter Fawkes. Fawkes later recalled that he asked Turner to draw a man-of-war and he began by pouring wet paint till [the paper] was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos — but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutiae, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph. That, Ackroyd writes, was a fitting description of Turner’s method and talent: The emergence of form out of chaos, the man-of-war emerging mysteriously from a mist of color…He created a dynamic and fluid space in which to work, quite unlike the more rigidly defined ground of previous artists. His tactile sense of creating shape and form — scratching and scrubbing as if he were dealing with some recalcitrant material — gives his work a texture of inspired improvisation and magical creation.  
March 24, 2015

Book Review: “Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

Psychiatrist Irv Yalom is 83. I call him Irv because that’s what he asks his psychiatric patients to call him. I picture him as a sprightly firecracker of a guy, tooling around San Francisco on his bicycle, stopping into the City Lights bookstore near his office and trading deep and witty thoughts with 95-year-old poet-painter-activist Lawrence Ferlighetti. I also have the fantasy that, at some time, somewhere, Yalom ran into and became friendly with Sherwin B. Nuland before Nuland’s death last March at the age of 83. It’s a fanciful thought. These two great souls lived across the country from each other. Yet, they seem to have shared common interests. Nuland is best known for his 1993 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. It’s a transcendently life-affirming work that looks at the mechanics of the human body and the ways the body — our body — breaks down. Its message: Life has an end so live it to the full. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy sends the same message but from a different perspective. Whereas Nuland looked at physical things (blood, muscles, cancer, the heart and so on), Yalom deals […]
March 15, 2015

Book review: “The Language of Clothes” by Alison Lurie

Sometimes, a piece of clothing or an aspect of fashion has a very specific meaning. In her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie notes that British officials, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, regarded green clothing as “a serious, even fatal, political act.” In fact, a popular song of the time mourned that they were “hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.” In Scotland, earlier in the 18th century, to don a clan tartan was to make a similar political statement, and the practice was banned by an Act of the British Parliament. Around the same time, a beauty patch was a clear signal of the party allegiance of an English lady (and her husband or father). If she were a Whig, she wore it on her right cheek. A Tory, on the left. A century earlier, the hair length of men had been the measure. Royalists wore their hair long, as in Catholic France. Puritans, by contrast, were closely cropped and were called Roundheads. Similarly, in 1960s America, the anti-Establishment young men let their hair grow and were called longhairs. Those backing the powers-that-be had crew cuts. Most often, though, the language of clothing […]
March 10, 2015

Book review: “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: the War for Public Opinion”

For the North, the goal of the Civil War was to reunite the nation. That’s how Abraham Lincoln defined it and why the northern states rallied behind the effort. Yet, the question of abolishing slavery was always somewhere in the discussion. Many northerners saw it as another, even more important goal of the conflict. Others, though, because of racism or fear of labor competition from free blacks, wanted nothing to do with abolition. Although personally long opposed to slavery, Lincoln knew as a politician that he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Eventually, he was able to sell abolition to the North as a weapon to cripple the war-making ability of the Confederacy. The result was the Emancipation Proclamation. To get to this point, though, Lincoln had to do what American leaders have always had to do, i.e., shape and shift public opinion step by subtle step. A key moment in that sales job came in August, 1862, when, in a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, the President wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I […]
March 5, 2015

Book review: “The Canticles: A Faithful and Inclusive Rendering from the Hebrew and the Greek into Contemporary English Poetry, Intended Primarily for Communal Song and Recitation,” edited by Gabe Huck, illustrated by Linda Ekstrom

Many of the books of the Bible are like Hollywood musicals. In Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, the narrative unfolds as characters interact, and, every once in a while, someone breaks into song, such as Tevye with “If I Were a Rich Man.” The same sort of thing happens in the Bible. The author of, say, Judith or Daniel or the Book of Revelations uses prose to tell stories or transmit teachings. But, at various points, the exposition is interrupted as one character or a bunch of people launch forth in a poetic prayer, called a canticle. Many of canticles were originally hymns. On the page in the Bible, they became poems. And, frequently, these poems have been turned back into hymns for use in religious services. That’s one of the purposes of this translation of 55 of the Bible’s many canticles, published in 1996 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, as well as a similar edition of the Psalms, issued in 1995. The translators wanted to find words and phrases that accurately reflected the original text and were easy to sing. They also wanted to make the language as inclusive as possible. For instance, they […]
March 4, 2015

Book review: “The Gay Place” by Billy Lee Brammer

On the cover of the University of Texas Press edition of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel The Gay Place is a blurb by David Halberstam: There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King’s Men…..the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson.   That’s high praise, especially coming from the author of The Best and the Brightest and nearly two dozen other widely respected books. I can’t agree.
March 4, 2015

Book review: “ ‘The World of Poo’ by Felicity Beedle’ ” by Terry Pratchett with Bernard and Isobel Pearson

In Terry Pratchett’s 2011 Discworld novel Snuff, Young Sam Vimes has become very interested in poo. Mainly, this is because Young Sam is six. It’s also because the only son of Sam Vimes, the commander of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, is on a visit to his parents’ country home where, throughout the grounds and nearby fields, interesting varieties of excrement abound. And because, each night, his father (grudgingly) reads to him from a book by Young Sam’s favorite writer, Miss Felicity Beedle, called The World of Poo. (Vimes doesn’t find all the verbal mucking about very enjoyable, but parenthood requires some sacrifices.) Young Sam and his family live on the Discworld, the subject of 40 novels by Pratchett as well as ancillary works produced with the help of collaborators The Discworld, where technology has reached the equivalent of Victorian times on Earth, isn’t a ball, like Earth. But a flat disc — like a huge DVD — covered with mountains, rivers, plains, oceans, six-year-olds and poo, among other items, resting atop the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on the back of Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle,…and flying through space. Pratchett has used Discworld as a vehicle to wittily […]