August 14, 2011

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States — from 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn

There is much in this book that’s infuriating. I’m not referring to the myriad ways in which the people of the United States (and earlier in the American colonies) have failed to live up to the nation’s founding ideals. It is sad and shameful how majorities have oppressed minorities throughout our history. And how the rich have lorded over the poor. And how racial prejudice, xenophobia, sexism and greed have pushed us apart from each other, isolating groups, blocking the ability for united action. We could be a much better people. We certainly say we want to be in our founding documents and more than two centuries of official pronouncements. So Zinn has an important, necessary story to tell in “A People’s History.” This was especially true in 1980 when his book was first published. Then, it was a tonic to the hyper-propaganda that passed for history in our textbooks and official histories. Yes, history is more than simply a story of the winners, more than simply the account of Important People, more than the narrative of the wealthy and those who seek to be wealthy. That was Zinn’s message, and it was an essential one. Three decades later, this […]
August 14, 2011

Book Review: A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

If Emily Dickinson had had a sense of humor, she might have written “A Girl Named Zippy.” And if she’d been born in 1965 in Indiana. That’s when and where Haven Kimmel arrived on the planet and spent her childhood in the small (population: 300) town of Mooreland — the subject of her fun and funny and subtly poetic memoir. Her father, she explains, nicknamed her Zippy after a roller-skating chimp he saw on TV because she zipped around the family home like the monkey. Of course, the book might just as easily been called “A Girl Named Haven.” What sort of name is Haven? Kimmel doesn’t explain, and it’s one of many questions, large and small, that she declines to address. Why, for instance, did her father wear a .38 in a shoulder holster? (Not addressed.) Why did her mother sit seemingly rooted in a corner of the couch, day in and day out, reading books, mainly science fiction? (Not addressed.) There is a light tone throughout this memoir. It is an evocative entertainment, and Kimmel clearly loves her parents, her sister and her brother and enjoyed growing up in their presence. But there are darker elements of her […]
August 13, 2011

How does God speak to us?

At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter. Then the LORD said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD — but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. — 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a How does God speak to us? In this account from first book of Kings, God doesn’t speak to Elijah in a hurricane or in an earthquake or in a roaring fire. But in “a tiny whispering sound.” You know you’re onto something special when biblical translators can’t agree on a particular phrase. In this case — “a tiny whispering sound” — they’re all over the map. Depending on the translation, God speaks to […]
August 11, 2011

The joy of being out of contact

I was in a hurry. My wife and I were leaving for a vacation in Paris the next day. So I didn’t give much thought to the canned email response I left for anyone who tried to reach me during the 11 days we would be gone. “Out of contact” was what I put in the subject line, and my message was: “I’ll be out of contact until July 8. I’ll get back to you after that.” As I say, I hadn’t given the wording much thought. I guess I didn’t want to say we’d be on vacation. That seemed like an invitation for a break-in, even though our daughter Sarah would be home holding down the fort. “Out of contact” just came into my head. In Paris, though, I was continuously reminded how apt it was. I left my Blackberry at home. So I wasn’t getting any phone calls interrupting whatever moment I was having before Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” in the Louvre, say, or while strolling in the Tuileries Garden. Most of the time, Cathy and I were together, but, when we weren’t, I didn’t feel the need to call her to tell her what I was doing or […]
August 8, 2011

Book review: “General Grant by Matthew Arnold, with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain,” edited by John Y. Simon

In 1867, the British poet Matthew Arnold published his 37-line lyric poem “Dover Beach,” which concludes with this stanza: Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. It’s a strikingly downbeat insight into life. Yes, life can seem various, beautiful and new. But, behind that curtain, there is no joy, love, light, certainty, peace or ease from pain. Instead, we stand “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” War as chaos — a metaphor for life. Twenty years later, in a two-part article published on Murray’s Magazine in England, Arnold used some 13,000 words to review — and promote — the recently published “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Grant, the victor of the Civil War and a former American president, was bankrupt and suffering from terminal cancer when, racing death, […]
July 26, 2011

Book review: “In Rough Country” by Joyce Carol Oates

I don’t usually read books like this, collections of smaller pieces. In this case, six essays and 23 literary reviews. I call them “literary reviews” rather than “book reviews” because, in them, Oates examines at least a good chunk — and often the entire breadth — of a writer’s work. Her essays deal with the sudden death of her husband after 48 years of marriage; her growing up in and near Lockport, N.Y.; and her life as a prominent author. I prefer the essays. The reviews flummoxed me. They display Oates’s deep knowledge of American literature. (In one of her essays, she estimates that she has read, in part or entirely, “thousands — tens of thousands? — ” of books in her life.) She comments with insight and sensitivity on writers ranging from Cormac McCarthy to Sharon Olds, from Jim Crace to Annie Proulx, from Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor. My difficulty is that I’ve read maybe one or two works by most of these authors, and none by some. So, often here, I’m getting Oates’s analysis of work of which I know nothing, or next to nothing. It’s like reading a Roger Ebert review of a movie I’ll never […]
July 23, 2011

Book review: “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Starting to read a new Terry Pratchett novel, for me, has been a different experience since December, 2007. That’s when Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Each time, I wonder: Is this the book that will show the impact of the disease? Will this be the one that shows the diminution of his skill? And: What kind of a ghoul am I to be thinking this? How can I worry about the quality of the books when this man — whom I’ve met and interviewed — is watching his brain slip away? A man of great writing skill and imagination recognizing that he is losing so much of what has made him him? It is a high measure of Pratchett’s skill that, once I’ve gotten into one of his post-announcement books, those questions quickly fade away. Pretty much. “I Shall Wear Midnight,” completed in May, 2010, is one of Pratchett’s darker novels. Which isn’t to say that it’s without its humorous asides, its droll footnotes and its odd and odder-than-odd characters. After all, the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue people also known as the Wee Free Men, are major figures here (if that’s not a contradiction […]