April 24, 2017

Book review: “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving” by Barbara Mahany

Kids go to school and learn things like geometry and the Magna Carta and chromosomes and similes and square roots and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but none of their textbooks has much to say about parenting. If educators and the American society that hires them ever see the light and recognize the need for children to learn how to grow up and take care of children, one of the first textbooks in the classroom should be Barbara Mahany’s new Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving. Consider this insight about what it means to take on the job of mothering a child: Motherhood is not for the faint of heart, and the heart needs to triple its size, so it seems, to pack in the requisite vast and infinite wisdom — and patience and sheer calculation and imagination and stamina and worry and second-guessing and, yes, full-throttle pangs of remorse when we get it wrong, time after time. “Mother-ing Day” Yes, we, parents, do get it wrong a lot, but it’s not for want of trying. Motherprayer is a primer on how to think about being a parent, and that’s what’s really important. It’s not a manual for how to raise the brightest or […]
April 17, 2017

Book review: “Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s ‘The Joy of Love’: A Faith Formation Guide” by Julie Hanlon Rubio

A year ago, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation on marriage and families, Joy of Love (Amoris laetitia), which, at about 60,000 words, is believed to be the longest papal document ever written. It would be difficult to find any papal document written with the beauty, simplicity, gusto and accessibility that Francis brings to the task. Nonetheless, Joy of Love is no simple read. It wrestles with important and complex theological ideas in ways that are refreshingly and, for some, unsettlingly, innovative. It’s good to have a guide, and that’s what Julie Hanlon Rubio, an ethicist at St. Louis University, provides with her newly published Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s “The Joy of Love”: A Faith Formation Guide,” from Liturgical Press. And the bottom line — if I can jump ahead to the final page of her text — is this: What Francis offers is beauty with plenty of weeds.   Joy and pain That may seem so cryptic as to be useless, but bear with me. Rubio, who is speaking on the Pope’s exhortation on Wednesday at 7 pm at Dominican University in River Forest, writes this in summarizing the Pope’s analysis of marriage in the context of Catholic beliefs. […]
April 17, 2017

Book review: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

In a diary he’s been keeping, a 40-year-old husband and father of three writes about winning $10,000 with a lottery ticket, and, since he expects these jottings to be read years and years down the line, he adds: Note to future generations: Happiness is possible. And when happy, so much better than opposite, i.e., sad. Hopefully you know! I knew, but forgot. Got used to being slightly sad! Slightly sad, due to stress, due to worry vis-à-vis limitations. But now, wow, no: happy!” This paragraph comes almost exactly halfway through George Saunders’ 2013 collection of ten short stories Tenth of December.   All but impossible And, by this point, the reader knows that happiness is all but impossible in the universe that Saunders describes — a universe of chain-stores with names such as YourItalianKitchen, of jobs so boring and meaningless they’re filled with dread and difficult to stomach, of good being equated with affluence, of economic winners living plastic lives, of everyone else scrambling to avoid falling further and further behind, of near-constant daydreaming about something happy that might happen if fingers are kept crossed. A universe in which female refugees from the Third World, known as SGs, are hooked […]
April 10, 2017

Book review: “Lucy Gayheart” by Willa Cather

Willa Cather was a writer of frontier novels in which Nature — the landscape, the weather, the seasons — is a major character, frequently set in contrast with the big city, usually Chicago. So it is with Lucy Gayheart, written in 1935, as I  discuss in a separate post. Yet, something else is at play here as well. When she wrote the novel, Cather had just turned 60 and was in tune with the zeitgeist that, shortly, would produce the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In her homey yet subtle way, she tapped into the modern loss of faith. And she created an existential novel.   A romance, a feminist story It doesn’t seem that way at the beginning. Indeed, Lucy Gayheart appears to be nothing more than a confection of a romance. Lucy is the bright, lively, musical girl, a stand-out among her young adult peers in the small Nebraska town of Haverford where Harry Gordon, the banker’s son, is the most eligible bachelor. They seem made for each other as they skate together on the Platte River in the novel’s opening scene. They have always seemed made for each other. But Lucy wants a career and […]
April 5, 2017

Book review: “Redwall” by Brian Jacques

In the menagerie of literature, fantasy is a curious animal. By its nature, fantasy is supposed to bend reality — but not too much. Fantasy only works if its tethered to the real world in some way so that the fantastic story can comment on the life its readers are living. For instance, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are all about dwarfs and vampires and golems and witches and wizards and trolls and the undead, but what they’re really about is racism and evil and religion and politics and higher education and the lower classes and the sheer ornery oddness of life and, of course, Death — who isn’t only a theme but also a major character in the books. A lot has to do with the audience. Pratchett’s books seem like books for kids, but those under the age of, say, 13 would miss almost all of their humor, and so would many under the age of 23. That’s not the case with the 22-book series of books by Englishman Brian Jacques that are centered on Redwall, a redstone abbey with an abbot, monks and a community of people, all of whom are mice. They are neighbors to and friends […]
March 22, 2017

Book review: “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore

As Biff notes at the beginning of Christopher Moore’s comic 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, his friend’s name was Joshua. Jesus, he explains, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Also, Christ isn’t his last name. It’s Greek for the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed. Biff goes on: I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. That gives you an idea of the general tone of Lamb and of Levi who is called Biff, one in a long line of Christopher Moore characters who are ribald, raunchy, cheeky, confused, intrepid, vibrant and — did I mention? — randy smart alecks with a heart of gold. Here, for instance, is how Biff summarizes the gist of virtually every sermon he ever heard Joshua give: “You should be nice to people, even creeps.” Generations of Christian theologians would probably nit-pick that teaching to death, and, yet, really, isn’t that the heart of Christianity?   “Lush blossoms” Here’s the thing about Lamb: It’s very funny and outrageous and in the worst possible taste, as in this scene: The new guy…noticed […]
March 13, 2017

Book review: “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door” by Barbara Mahany

There are many paragraphs in Barbara Mahany’s Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, that could be scanned as poetry, such as this one: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn.   Blessed be triumphant blast of light, and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in.   And bless those among us who are wide-eyed in wonderment.   Barbara Mahany has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years, and, for many of those years, we were colleagues at the Chicago Tribune. In the excerpt above, there are echoes of Gerard Manly Hopkins and St. Francis of Assisi, but it’s pure Barbara. She has always been one who is “wide-eyed in wonderment” before the beauty, mystery and complexity of creation, as this 2014 book shows.   “Everyone you meet” Slowing Time is meditative, descriptive, prayerful — and completely out of step with much of what American mainstream society concerns itself. That’s a good thing. It’s countercultural in the gentlest and steeliest of ways. Barbara is a believer during an era when belief is either ignored as superstitious claptrap or blamed for violence and unrest in […]
March 10, 2017

Six Poverty Books

In the past couple weeks, I’ve posted reviews of six books about people living in poverty, published between 1890 and 1986 — nearly a century’s worth. Below are the books with links to the reviews. But, first, a few observations from my reading of the books: Poor people are people. They have full lives with the full range of human emotions.       They are not a breed apart.       They are us. Poverty is no fun. It’s a complicated, stress-filled existence. Personal choices have an important impact on an individual life and can be a factor in that person living in poverty. Yet, even more important is the machinery of society and the economy which builds in a greater or lesser amount of unemployment and provides greater or lesser access to opportunities through education and housing. Here are the books with an excerpt:   1890 — How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis: “How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every […]
March 9, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1985 — “The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass” by the staff of the Chicago Tribune

In the late summer of 1985, Jim Gallagher, one of my editors at the Chicago Tribune, came to my desk and told me to put everything on hold. Instead of my normal duties as a general assignment reporter, I was assigned to write several stories as part of an in-depth investigation into the existence and implications of what was then being called the black underclass. The series was to be titled The American Millstone: An Examination of the nation’s permanent underclass. Comprising the underclass were African-American people living in deep poverty with little or no expectation of escape. As blacks, they were limited by racism. As poor people, they were limited by a reduced access to good education and decent-paying jobs — they lacked the networks that those elsewhere in society used to learn about and take advantage of opportunities. Yet, not everyone who was black and poor was in the underclass.   Distinctive about this group What was distinctive about this group was that they lived in a subculture in which crime was a threat and, for some, an occupation. It was a subculture in which many sought escape through drugs and many made money selling drugs. Indeed, many […]
March 9, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1936 — “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans

There are many ways to approach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create. But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee. Let me try to be as clear as I can. I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee. In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant […]
March 8, 2017

Book review: Poverty books — 1929-1930 — “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell

Midway through Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell is making a point: The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. Orwell is reacting to the general feeling among the non-poor of England of his time — and it’s true today in the United States — that people who live in poverty are somehow less than full people. That they’re of a different breed, a lesser breed. Yet, in this book about his own experience living in extreme poverty over the course of more than three months in late 1929 and early 1930, Orwell makes again and again the strikingly obvious point: that the poor are human beings, just like the rest of us.   “Ordinary human beings” For instance, writing about his time among tramps and beggars in London and its environs, Orwell notes: It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one […]
March 7, 2017

Book Review: Poverty books — 1890 — “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

…. There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book. In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary. If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends. The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options. But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.   Common humanity How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained […]
March 2, 2017

Book review: Poverty Books –– 1936 — “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell

There are two halves to George Orwell’s investigative report on the working class of the industrial centers of Yorkshire and Lancashire in England, published in 1937, The Road to Wigan Pier. The second is a pointed, opinionated, witty and, at times, technical discussion of the failures of the British social-political system to provide decent opportunities for the working class and others at the bottom of the economic heap, and of what was needed to eliminate these failings. His answer was socialism, but not as British socialists were practicing the political creed. A more humane, less class-conscious socialism is what Orwell had in mind. This 100-page section is filled with telling observations about the class system in Britain, with many slaps at the middle class, particularly socialists of that class unable and unwilling to see working class people as equals. With many writers, this would be heavy going, but Orwell is never boring, even when he’s being pedantic and biased and more than a bit of a know-it-all. In much of what he writes, though, he makes eminent sense.   “Black thumb-print” But I don’t want to deal here with this second half of the book. Instead, I want to look closely […]
February 27, 2017

Book review: Poverty Books — 1902 — “The People of the Abyss” by Jack London

Turn to page 24 of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, and you’ll find many of the book’s themes on display. The American spent seven weeks in the summer of 1902 investigating — and often living — the life of the poor of the East End of London, the grandest, most powerful and most populous city in the world. Some 450,000 of the city’s 6.2 million people lived in poverty, most of them segregated in the East End. Or, as the writer put it on page 24: At this very moment, 450,000 of these creatures are dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit called “London.” Jack London, still trying to make his mark as a writer, had not yet produced the novel that made his reputation, The Call of the Wild. Indeed, he would start that book a few months later, in December, and both the novel and the 128-page non-fiction investigative work would be published in 1903.   “Old woman’s fault” As an example of those “dying miserably at the bottom of the social pit,” London lays out on page 24 of The People of the Abyss the details of the sad life and death of […]
February 16, 2017

Book review: “The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner,” edited by Ron Rapoport

Near the end of The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, in a section called “Buried Treasure,” editor Ron Rapaport includes this tidbit from a Lardner column about diet and exercise: Like for inst. you wouldn’t go to Babe Ruth for beauty hints no more than you would ask Lillian Gish which cheek to park your tobacco in vs. a left-hander. Rapaport’s newly published book might just as well have been titled Buried Treasure because little of Lardner’s work as a journalist has previously been available despite the high praise he garnered during and after his short life from such literary luminaries as Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson. He’s remembered today for his short stories, but, throughout his writing career from 1907 until shortly before his death in 1933 at the age of 48, Lardner was a practicing journalist whose work, often syndicated throughout the nation, attracted a huge audience. His output, too, was huge. For instance, during his career with the Chicago Tribune, he wrote more than 1,600 columns and other stories, most often about sports but also such other topics as politics, Prohibition and World War I.   “Bowed his knees” Although he left Chicago in […]
February 8, 2017

Book review: “Secondhand Souls” by Christopher Moore

Early on, in Secondhand Souls, the report comes from one character to another that the hellhounds are gone. This is important to the plot of Christopher Moore’s 2015 comic novel because the hellhounds — often referred to as the “Irish hellhounds” since that seems to sound better — are the protectors of seven-year-old Sophie who is Death with a Capital D, or, as she shouts in a bit of a tantrum, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: I am become Death, destroyer of worlds. Except, maybe, she isn’t Big-D Death any more. Which is particularly problematic because, again, as when Sophie was a toddler (and had to save the world), the forces of darkness are gathering and appear on the edge of bringing a thundering end to life as we know it. At least, in San Francisco. So, it’s bad that the Irish hellhounds — Alvin and Mohammed — have disappeared from the scene. Beyond all that, though, there was at least one reader who spent much of Secondhand Souls mourning the absence of the two 400-pound mastiffs who first made their appearance in Moore’s 2006 book A Dirty Job. Let me explain.   Wacky In A Dirty Job, Moore, a […]
January 30, 2017

Book review: “Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective” by Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser and Justin Lang, OFM

Many modern Catholics aren’t sure what to make of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some of us remember when, prior to the Second Vatican Council, she was very much near the center of our faith. Indeed, Protestants, in general, thought the Catholic church gave way too much attention to Mary, even, some said, to the point of idolatry. Then, in the 1960s, among Catholics, there was a swing of the pendulum that moved Mary more to the margins of belief. There were still a lot of believers who kept up their prayers and devotions to Mary, but, for the most part, Catholic writers and preachers didn’t have a lot to say about her, arguing, directly or implicitly, that they needed to turn their focus much more narrowly on Jesus.   Mary, in other words, was seen as something of a distraction.   “Joyfulness of narration” That’s the context in which my own faith was formed, and it’s only been recently that I’ve felt myself looking at Mary and trying to understand her better and to figure out her place in my own brand of Catholicism. Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective is a delightful jewel […]
January 25, 2017

Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured” by Kathryn Harrison

It was early March of 1429 when Joan, a 17-year-old girl from rural Domremy, arrived in the city of Chinon to tell the Dauphin — Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France — that she had been sent from God to lead his soldiers. If Joan was daunted by her arrival in a world so unlike her own, where wealth had the power to banish the squalor of peasant life [writes Kathryn Harrison], she betrayed no discomfort. If she felt any awe in entering the castle of a king, she showed none to her companions… Joan’s attention was elsewhere, already beyond the chateau, galloping ahead of her. Long before she arrived at court, Joan had embarked on a prolonged visionary experience that would end only at her death…. The story of Joan has been told many times over the past six centuries, and it will continue to be told for many centuries more. It’s a story of fierce faith, dirty politics, venal churchmen, trust betrayed, patriotism abused and, most especially, a girl who called herself Joan the Virgin and was called by her enemies Joan the Whore and Joan the Witch and who, for the past hundred years, has been […]
January 23, 2017

Book review: “So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell

William Maxwell’s 1980 semi-autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, originally published in The New Yorker in two installments, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Award. In 2016, it was included in a list the 75 best books of the previous 75 years. Maxwell was The New Yorker’s fiction editor for forty years, working with and gaining the respect of such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, Shirley Hazzard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. So, the high praise for his novel, published when Maxwell was in his early 70s, is not surprising. The novel is an exquisitely rendered, jewel-like story that’s told in just 135 pages in its original hardcover edition. It is notable for its extreme emotional reserve and ever-so-delicate craftsmanship. For me, it was bloodless.   A decidedly bleak view I’m sure there are many of Maxwell’s fans who will tell me I’m deaf to Maxwell’s artistry. And, truth be told, So Long, See You Tomorrow does have the feel of an intense and elegant poem. It is made up of two stories. One is about a murder in 1920s Lincoln, Illinois, that results from […]
January 16, 2017

Book review: “Cities in Flight” by James Blish

Cities in Flight is an omnibus, first published in 1970, that collects together four novels by James Blish. Those novels themselves were collections of stories that Blish had published between 1950 and 1962. I initially read Cities in Flight in paperback sometime during the 1970s when I was in my 20s. Now, some four decades later, I’ve re-read a hardcover version of the book, published in 2000. Of the two books as objects, I much prefer the cover art of the paperback in which each letter of the two main words of the title is a kind of city in flight. The dustjacket of the hardcover suggests an eerie strangeness. That’s mainly because what intrigued me then about the novel and still intrigues me is the idea of whole cities lifting off from Earth and wandering space like migrant workers or, as they call themselves, Okies. As a newspaper reporter in the 1970s, I was covering a bunch of Chicago suburbs, each of which had a mayor and some sort of city manager, and, in the final three of the novel’s four sections, the central characters are the mayor and the city manager of the space-travelling New York City. I’m […]
January 11, 2017

Book review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

At the end of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel The Sympathizer, the unnamed narrator and central character asks a series of questions: What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around up apparently do, in nothing? These are the metaphysical issues at the heart of The Sympathizer, the winner of the 2106 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but that’s not clear until the very end of the novel. Instead, the novel seems to about living in two worlds as the narrator suggests with these words that open the book: I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.   “The dust of life” Born in the northern […]
January 10, 2017

Book review: “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc” by Charles Peguy, adapted by Jean-Paul Lucet, translated by Jeffrey Wainwright

In Charles Peguy’s play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, there are three characters: Joan, her friend Hauviette and a nun called Madam Gervaise. The year is 1425, and Joan is a seemingly simple teenaged peasant girl, trying to figure out what faith means and what faith requires. She is on stage the entire time. She is joined for the first part by Hauviette and for the second by Madam Gervaise. Their conversations are theological investigations. Hauviette seems to represent a sort of common sense approach to questions about God and belief. Madam Gervaise appears to represent official Catholic teaching. The key line in the play, to my mind, is uttered when the nun asks Joan: Why do you want, sister, to save the dead who are damned to eternal Hell? Why do you want to be a better savior than the Savior?   Three questions Peguy (1873-1914), born of French peasant stock, was a poet, editor and political activist who espoused an idiosyncratic version of Catholicism. In 1897, he wrote a very long drama Joan of Arc. Thirteen years later, he returned to the subject of the soldier-saint Maid of Orleans when he composed The Mystery […]
January 5, 2017

Book review: “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather

It’s been 90 years since Willa Cather published Death Comes for the Archbishop, and what’s particularly striking about the novel is how it seems to exist outside the fashions and prejudices of a particular era and, yet, tells a universal story about human beings and the earth on which they live. At the center of the novel are two French Jesuits — Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant — two celibate men who, in the mid-19th century, devote their lives to bring religious faith and comfort to Mexican-Americans in the newly acquired U.S. territory of New Mexico. Missionaries are generally depicted in books and movies today as aggressive, vindictive, dictatorial and stone-hearted. I’m sure there have been such priests in the history of the mission fields, but I’m also certain that a lot more of those who went out to share their faith with people who knew little or nothing of Jesus were like Latour and Vaillant. Cather presents them as strong, committed men, willing to put up with great hardships in doing what they saw as God’s work. Flawed, like all of us are, but good at heart. We can still believe today in the […]
January 3, 2017

My Top Fourteen Books of 2016

Last year, it was my top eleven. This year, it’s the top fourteen. Why? I could tell you that I’d already left a lot of good books off this list. And I could tell you that I would cheerfully, joyfully, delightedly recommend any of these books to any reader. Really, though, it’s because these fourteen. among all those I read in 2016, touched deepest me in some way. Some, such as The House on Mango Street and The Long Season, are books that I’ve read before. A good number are ostensibly books on religious topics, but I’d argue that their subject matter was the human condition. They’re ranked first to fourteenth, but, really, on another day, the list would probably be shuffled a bit, or a lot. So, here they are along with a portion of my review and a link to that review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. In his novel, Miller has created a captivating story in which the future world echoes what happened in the past. Just as Western civilization took hundreds of years to rebuild itself after the fall of Rome, Miller’s post-apocalyptic Earth goes through a Dark Ages (the first section), […]
December 21, 2016

Book review: “Walks with Men” by Ann Beattie

Walks with Men is Ann Beattie’s very short 2010 novel about two vacuous but affluent New Yorkers who have an affair, break up, marry and then really break up. This reads like a longish short story in the New Yorker, a publication for which Beattie often writes. And that magazine’s readers seem to be its target audience. I was left feeling out of it.   Rarified stratum What I mean is that, despite the skill with which Beattie tells this story, I could find no purchase. The two central characters — 44-year-old Neil and 22-year-old Jane — are like no one I know, except maybe people in a movie about the rarified stratum of cultural winners who comport themselves like masters and mistresses of their universe. In 1980, when the couple meet, Neil is an academic who dabbles in commentary in high-tone periodicals while Jane has made a sudden (and fleeting) name for herself as the poster girl for a disillusioned generation after giving a graduation speech at Harvard that disparaged an Ivy League education. Headline! Headline!   Great praise from the French As the novel progresses through their courtship and living together and the ultimate disappearance of one of the […]