January 18, 2018

Book review: “Catseye” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s 1974 novel Catseye is what’s often called a space opera. In other words, like the old Westerns — called horse operas — it’s an adventure story, set in space, featuring good guys and bad guys. And, in the end, the white hats win. In other words, we’re not talking King Lear or Paradise Lost here. Catseye is entertainment, pure and simple. And, yet, there is something noble about a well-crafted entertainment, made with pride and integrity and intelligence and a level of creativity.   A kinship Here, as in many other Norton novels, the story involves a human being — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks named Troy Horan — who is able to talk telepathically with animals. In this case, five animals from Earth — two cats, two foxes and a playful little monkey-like creature called a kinkajou. This theme was obviously important to Norton, and it’s not just a fun what-if feature to her stories. Deeper, it is a recognition of a kinship between humans and other creatures and, by extension, with all of creation — a proto-ecology idea when Norton originally used the concept sixty-five years ago in her first science-fiction […]
January 16, 2018

Book review: “Cover Her Face” by P.D. James

It was in 1962 that P.D. James published Cover Her Face, her first murder mystery featuring Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard. At the time, Agatha Christie was still the dominant voice in the field, selling millions of mysteries each year and cranking out new novels at an annual pace. In the previous 41 years, she had published 59 mysteries. Her 60th The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side came in 1962. It was followed over the next 14 years by 13 more. This is worth noting because, in many ways, Cover Her Face is very much of the Christie genre. There is a hothouse quality to the novel, set as it is in the rural estate of landed gentry (albeit a little threadbare). The murder victim is found behind a locked door. And the solution is incredibly complex and far-fetched. I’ve seen reports that, later in her writing life, James said that she didn’t think much of this first effort, and there’s good reason. It’s a bit hokey in the way that most of Christie’s novels were hokey.   A novel trying to escape Even so, Cover Her Face is a pleasure to read. Throughout, there are hints […]
January 10, 2018

Book review: “Native Son” by Richard Wright

For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger. On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner. This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes: His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness… This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.   “A world he feared” Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city. (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.) He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society […]
January 8, 2018

Book review: “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia

The cover of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia indicates that this is a book for kids 9 to 12. And, sure, the reading level will fit that group of kids. But what makes the book so rich and courageous is that it deals with issues that kids will have to think about and deal with as adults — issues that are far from simple and aren’t likely to ever go away. Set in 1968, One Crazy Summer is about three African-American sisters from Brooklyn — Delphine, 11; Venetta, 9; and Fern, 7 — who fly across country to spend 28 days in Oakland with the mother who walked out on them when Fern was a newborn. Nearly everyone the sisters meet during their visit are black. This is a book about the black experience in 1968 and the black experience today, and its target audience are African-American kids. Even so, its secondary audience is all other kids. The questions raised in this book have to be faced most directly by black kids and adults. But non-black kids and adults have to come up with their own answers to these questions as well. For instance, the sisters spend their four […]
January 5, 2018

Book review: “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills

Make no mistake: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a refounding of the United States. A redefinition of the nation — a revolution, if you will. It was the substitution of the Declaration of Independence with its clear, direct, unequivocal statement that “all men are created equal” as the country’s central document, in place of the U.S. Constitution with its acceptance of slavery and, in consequence, a lesser ideal. It was a clear commitment to the principle of equality after a half century of intellectual muddiness. And, as Garry Wills explains in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg, it was a revolution that was carried out in the space of three minutes and in the speaking of 272 words. A revolution carried out, peacefully, through logic, political genius and language that has resonated ever since through American history and culture — a revolution in thought and spirit, conveyed in what were billed simply as “remarks” at the dedication of the new cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of a fiercely fought civil war in which body counts reached into the hundreds of thousands on both sides.   “To clear the infected atmosphere of American […]
January 3, 2018

The nine best books of 2017

In addition to the groups of books I highlighted on Tuesday, I wanted to honor the nine individual books that I read in 2017. These were books that left an impression on me because of their insights and artistry, and I would gladly recommend them to anyone. The listing of each book contains a somewhat meat excerpt from my review. If you’d like the full review, just click on the title. …   “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” Edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on […]
January 2, 2018

The best groups of books of 2017

Looking back over the 60-plus books I read in 2017, I am struck by how many of the best — 19 to be exact — fall into groups that comprise sort of mini-seminars on a particular subject. For instance, there were six books about poverty that I reviewed, one after the other last spring. Published between 1890 and 1986, they provided a variety of views on the life of people who live in poverty, stressing their people-ness. In other words, for the most part, the writers of these books weren’t discussing these people as laboratory rats but as fellow folk. Another grouping — the books in Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press — was one that I initially wrote about in the Chicago Tribune and then expanded for my website. This overview cites five books from the series that I have reviewed, some in 2016, some in 2017. All my life I have been fascinated by Joan of Arc, an interest that has grown in recent years. The four discussed her are among many I’ve read, and there are many more to read. Similarly, the four books about the Bible are, in general, part of a […]