July 5, 2012

Book review: “The Bear” by William Faulkner

“The Bear,” which was included in William Faulkner’s collection of seven fiction pieces in “Go Down, Moses” in 1942, has been called a short story. It’s also been labeled a novella. At 40,000 words or so, it is considered by many to be a novel. (Indeed, I read the piece in a collection titled, “Nine Short Novels.”) To further complicate matters, “Go Down, Moses” has been thought of as a grouping of related short stories, but Faulkner contended that these stories, taken together, formed a novel. I haven’t read the other six pieces in “Go Down, Moses,” but, about “The Bear,” I can say it’s something very much like an epic poem. The Iliad is about a war. The Odyssey is about a journey. “The Bear” is about something internal, an inner rot, a peculiarly American sin, the Original American Sin, if you will — slavery. This is the corruption that slavery wreaks upon the whites who see themselves as masters, and upon their children and children’s children — often, as in this story, brothers and sisters, cousins and kin of different colors. And not just slavery, but that particular American skill of turning land into real estate, the soil […]
July 4, 2012

Book review: “Lives of Rembrandt: Sandrart, Baldinucci and Houbraken,” introduced by Charles Ford

Rembrandt had been dead for half a century when Arnold Houbraken wrote in one of the earliest biographies of the painter: And as to his female nudes, the noblest subject for the artist’s brush, the representation of which earned the fullest attention of the most celebrated old masters, well, as the proverb says, “too sad a song either to be sung or to be played.” His nudes are all sickening displays and one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could have been so perverse in the selection of what to paint. Later, Houbraken quotes poet Andries Pels: If, as he sometimes did, he painted a naked woman, He took no Grecian Venus as his model but rather A washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn. He called this idiocy “copying nature” And everything else vain ornament. Flabby breasts, Contorted hands, even the creases left by straps On the body, or garters on the leg, They must all be copied else nature was not satisfied, His nature, that is, which tolerated neither rules Nor principles of proportion in the human figure. So, here is Rembrandt, one of the giants of Western art, being excoriated for his […]
July 1, 2012

Book review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Near the end of “The Long Earth,” after a long quest, the three central characters come face to face with an entity that one describes as “a destroyer of worlds. An eater of souls.” Or, as another more bluntly puts it, “the end of the world” for humans. That’s a lot for a reader to bite off and gobble down. The end of the world? Really? Yet, it’s a measure of the skill and imagination of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that, by this point in the novel, the reader doesn’t hear melodramatic echoes from bad sci-fi flicks. Instead, the reader is more likely to hear echoes from J. Robert Oppenheimer who, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, recalled the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
June 19, 2012

Book review: “Inherent Vice” by Thomas Pynchon

In 2009, Thomas Pynchon published a (for him) short 369-page mystery novel “Inherent Vice” about a hippie private investigator trying to puzzle out a host of intricate and seemingly inter-related crimes, deaths, “deaths,” disappearances, hallucinations, scams, drug deals, relationships and betrayals. And was accused of betrayal by some critics and longtime Pynchon fans for slumming in genre fiction. On that question, I have nothing to say. Many years ago, I gave Pynchon a shot, trying and failing to get very far into a couple of his earlier novels. (Not much of an effort, I must admit.) So I’m in no position to judge whether he’s slumming. Yet, for what it’s worth, after reading “Inherent Vice,” I’m going to take a stab, sometime soon, at one of his “literary” works. Beside the point Actually, the distinction between literary and genre books is somewhat beside the point for a writer as talented as Pynchon.
June 7, 2012

Book review: “The Menace from Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

Success, in the form of “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), went to Robert A. Heinlein’s head. He discovered a callow audience enthralled with his pop psychology and jejune philosophical rantings on free love, non-conformity, self-reliance and nudity, and took it as a license to pontificate. He became bombastic and preachy and, well, a crank. That Heinlein, thankfully, is nowhere to be found in “The Menace from Earth,” a crackerjack 1959 collection of eight stories published between 1941 and 1957. These stories are just plain terrific, displaying, in a highly concentrated form, Heinlein’s great story-telling abilities.
June 6, 2012

Book review: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” edited by Hilary Ballon

Two hundred and one years ago, when New York comprised the small southern tip of Manhattan Island, three commissioners laid out the future of the city as a grid. It was an act of chutzpah.
June 3, 2012

Book review: “American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis

“American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis is the sort of photo-art book that you don’t read from cover to cover. Except, it turns out, you do. At least, I did. This 1999 book is irresistibly readable because of — although some might argue in spite of — its being composed of four levels of stories that are told simultaneously.
May 30, 2012

Book review: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” by Philip Pullman

As a Christian, I’ve read a lot of stuff by other believers about the life of Jesus and its meaning. In addition, I’ve always found it enjoyable and instructive to read what non-believers — or, at least, unofficial commentators — have to say. Historians, as professionals without the overlay of theology, shed an interesting light on what is known and what can be guessed. But, even more insightful are novelists who bring a keen eye and ear to the job. And many, great and not-so-great, have taken a shot at it, including Norman Mailer, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Rice, Reynolds Price, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Gore Vidal, Charles Dickens and Nikos Kazantzakis. Now, here’s Philip Pullman with his 2010 book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” part of the Canongate Myth Series.
May 25, 2012

Book review: “Little Jackrabbit at Home in the Desert” by Jim Strickler, illustrations by Karen Pritchett

I’m not four-years-old, but I learned something from this sweet short story about Baby Jack — written by my friend Jim Strickler. I learned: • That a mother jackrabbit scrapes out a smooth spot under a sagebrush and lines it with her own fur as a place where she can give birth in private and comfort. • That the desert has “many wonderful sounds: the songs of a meadowlark, the barking of a prairie dog, and the ‘hooooo’ of the wind blowing across the dry land.” • That, during the heat of the day, a jackrabbit rests in a clump of brown grass where his fur blends in with the grass and the sandy soil so that “hungry coyotes and eagles that are hunting for food cannot see him easily.” • That jackrabbits have developed a way to chew a hole in a cactus in order to avoid “the prickly spines on the outside” and get at “the moist part inside.” • That a mother jackrabbit alerts her children to the presence of a coyote or other danger by “pounding one of her back paws against the hard ground.” I enjoyed Baby Jack’s joy at the departure of a coyote. […]
May 25, 2012

Book review: “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

OK, “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope, published in 1855, is one of the classics of English literature. Over the past century and a half, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers have enjoyed Trollope’s humorous, poignant and sharp-eyed account of the travails of Rev. Septimus Harding, a minor clergyman in the (fictional) cathedral town of Barchester. Mr. Harding is the elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charity home established more than 400 years earlier for a dozen aged laborers no longer able to earn their daily bread.
May 20, 2012

Book review: “The Company of Glory” by Edgar Pangborn

Edgar Pangborn’s science-fiction novel “The Company of Glory” was initially serialized in three parts in Galaxy magazine in the latter half of 1974. It was published in 1975. Pangborn died on February 1, 1976, at the age of 66. I mention this because “The Company of Glory” is the story of Demetrios, a storyteller in the early stages of a post-apocalyptic world who is in his early 60s and in failing health. Is it in some way the story of storyteller Pangborn who, I would guess, was in failing health as he was writing this, his final novel?
May 16, 2012

Book review: “The Jesuits: a Multibiography” by Jean Lacouture

There are times when Jean Lacouture draws a picture of a particular Jesuit that takes your breath away. Consider his description of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century scientist-theologian who was silenced for much of his professional life by the church for describing an evolving Universe in place of traditional Catholic teaching of a static world, rooted in the Book of Genesis. Agnostic intellectuals and researchers, Lacouture writes, saw, in Teilhard, “a luminous personality almost recklessly offered, open to the point of innocence,” and a man in constant, quick movement, “pulsing with joyful vitality and optimism.” Further, he writes: Teilhard walked through life with long strides, from continent to continent, from millennium to millennium, from the Gobi Desert to Harar in Abyssinia, a beret on his head, or a sun helmet, or a turban, a cape slung across his shoulders, in shorts and bush jacket, wearing boots or rope soles — something of a Marco Polo, something of Claudel, something of Rimbaud — tough, laughing, pick or hammer in hand and a parable on his lips, twenty stories in his head, a too human human at once riveted in priestly fetters he had accepted and in permanent violation of […]
May 15, 2012

Book review: “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by Harvey Araton

“Driving Mr. Yogi” by Harvey Araton is a fun book for a Yankee fan. I suspect it wouldn’t be much of a read for anyone else.
May 11, 2012

Book review: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

I suspect that Charles Dickens was in a pretty foul mood when he wrote “Hard Times” in 1854. He draws stark differences between the “good” people and the “bad” people in this story, and assigns bleak fates to nearly all of them. As usual in Dickens, the “bad” people are those that the society of his day saw as good — the upholders of civilization, the ambitious businessmen who made the British Empire hum, the refined, the educated, the proper, the gentry and the would-be gentry. The “good” characters for him are those that civilized society looked down on — the workers, the domestics, the vagabonds, the entertainers. The salt of the earth. In “Hard Times,” the “bad” people are especially ignoble. They are blowhards and snoops. They manipulate others out of boredom. They bully. They lack self-knowledge. They are self-satisfied, unctuous. Supercilious. Insipid. Throughout the book, they cause constant havoc in the lives of other people, particularly the “good” characters. Those “good” characters, with the exception of clear-headed Sissy Jupe, are victims. One is victimized by her father and her own stubbornness. The father is victimized by his belief in “Facts!” An honest laborer has four separate persecutors, including […]
May 7, 2012

Book review: “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie

The subtitle of Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” is “Portrait of a Woman.” But that’s too limiting. This 574-page biography is the portrait of a person — one who happens to have been a woman and who happens to have been the empress of Russia for more than thirty years in the late 1700s. On the final page of the book, Massie makes the argument — hard to dispute — that Catherine was the greatest monarch of her era and the equal to her predecessor, Peter the Great. That’s saying a lot since Peter was the man who, four decades earlier, had dragged his nation out of the Middle Ages and into modern eighteenth-century Europe to play a significant role in world affairs. “Peter imported technology and government institutions,” Massie writes. “Catherine brought European moral, political and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education.” Indeed, Catherine created the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and its original collection of art by such luminaries as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Raphael and Titian. Today, it contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is considered one of the greatest art museums on earth. She also commissioned “The Bronze Horseman,” […]
April 28, 2012

Book review: “The Berlin Ending: A Novel of Discovery” by E. Howard Hunt

As spy novels go, “The Berlin Ending” by E. Howard Hunt, published 38 years ago, is okay. For readers looking for an addictive page-turner, it will probably be on the slow side. Hunt, who died in 2007, had actually been in the CIA and knew what he was talking about. But the verisimilitude that this brings to his story seems to make the book a bit clunky. For readers looking for literature along the lines of John LeCarre, this novel will be unsatisfying. Characters are flat. Motivations, weak. Descriptions, clichéd. “The Berlin Ending” is a competent work, even so. Yet, I didn’t read it so much for itself — although I enjoy a good spy yarn — but because Hunt was a key figure in the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building. It was the attempts of the Richard Nixon White House to cover up the administration’s connection to Hunt and the burglars that led to the ruination of Nixon and so many of the men around him. That amazing fall from national grace, a fit subject for a Shakespeare, was treated well if superficially in the recently published novel “Watergate” […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: Stories We Keep, edited by Dawn Curtis and Robin Bourjaily

“Stories We Keep” is a small book, only 64 pages. And it’s even shorter if you’re a reader like me who isn’t very hip to yoga or interested in recipes involving yams. Nonetheless, its five short stories are startlingly vivid evocations of the sharp shards of life. Let me explain. These stories are from five female writers who use a particular trademarked approach to yoga — Yoga as Muse — to expand their creative horizons. Hence, the Q&A at the end of each writer’s story concerning the interaction of the disciplines of yoga and writing. They call themselves the YAM Tribe. Hence, the recipes for yams that most of them add as well. All of which may set up expectations for New Age-ish narratives about crystals and Gaia. Not to worry. Jeffrey Davis, the originator of Yoga as Muse, writes in an introduction: This anthology contains no epiphanies. No ecstatic moments of the writer or a character becoming one with green leaves and mountain streams. No Rumi-esque songs of the Divine. What a relief. Moving toward truth Yoga, according to Davis, isn’t about ecstasy or epiphany. And neither is writing. Practicing yoga does not remove all maladies. Nor does writing […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon

Well, Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is certainly a readable novel. It’s an amazement, really, that he’s been able to take the tottering heap of jagged historical events, involving scores of politicians and suchlike, and weave them into a narrative about the fall of Richard Nixon that flows smoothly, steadily, inexorably. That flow continues even as the end approaches. When I’d pick up the book, I’d find myself right back into the middle of the story. The thing is, as the conclusion neared, I wasn’t in a rush to pick it up. I knew — as any reader would know — where Nixon’s story was heading. It sort of sapped the suspense. Mallon works to keep the reader reading through the use of a couple subplots: What will happen between Pat Nixon and her fictional lover Tom Garahan? And what will Fred LaRue and his fictional lover Clarine “Larrie” Lander do about a missing envelope, marked with the handwritten word “MOOT” and containing an investigative report about the deepest question in LaRue’s life? Only three of the book’s 100-plus characters aren’t from the historical record — Garahan, Lander and Billy Pope, a senatorial aide who has a minor walk-on. Yet, in the […]
April 5, 2012

Book review: “Fatherland” by Robert Harris

Historical fiction is dangerous territory for a writer. It’s all too easy to make actual people, say, Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, into stick figures, and actual events, say, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, into just another thriller or romance novel. Consider “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. A related genre is based on alternate history, the field of what-if. What if the South had won the Civil War? MacKinlay Kantor came up with a plausible and interesting take on that in 1960. This can be pushed to silly extremes. What if Nazi-like South Africans from this era had travelled back in time to supply Robert E. Lee’s troops with AK-47s? Too silly to find a publisher, you say? Not at all. In 1992, Ballantine published “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, telling just that story. “Fatherland,” published in the same year, provides a much more nuanced look at how history might have evolved if a few events had gone differently. Indeed, in Robert Harris’s hands, it’s a crackerjack of a novel that meets the needs of genre fiction, yet also teaches a lesson from the past, perhaps the most important lesson of the last century. […]
March 27, 2012

Book review: “She’s on First” by Barbara Gregorich

Linda Sunshine plays shortstop for the Chicago Eagles, the first woman to become a major leaguer. Her manager, the star pitcher and some of her other teammates don’t like the idea. At all. Yet, for her — as for them — baseball is more than a living. It’s more than a game. “Ever since I can remember,” she tells sportswriter Neal Vanderlin, “I’ve wanted to be a baseball player.” So what does she like best about baseball? “Everything! The way it all fits together. You know — that the ball doesn’t score, people do. That the team with the ball can’t score, the team without the ball can. That there’s no time limit. That the diamonds and field and fences all fit together, and the runner’s speed and the fielder’s speed and the speed of the ball in flight.” In Barbara Gregorich’s “She’s on First,” Linda is the first woman to take the field as a player, but her rookie season is also a test. And, depending on how she does, other women may or may not have the chance to follow in her spike tracks. Sort of like a female Jackie Robinson. Indeed, when Al Mowerinski, the former Eagles […]
March 19, 2012

Book review” “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

A little before midnight on the last night of his life Timothy Marr, a linen draper of Radcliffe Highway, set about tidying up the shop, helped by the shop-boy James Gowen. So begins “The Maul and the Pear Tree” by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, a thorough account and re-thinking of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed in London’s East End in December, 1811. The slayings are well-known to Britons, particularly Londoners, although less so to Americans. On Dec. 7, the 24-year-old clothing merchant was gruesomely murdered in his combination shop and home along with his wife Cecilia, their three-month old son Timothy and the young lad Gowen. Three of the victims were bludgeoned to death with a heavy long-handled iron hammer, a maul, found matted with blood, hair and brains in one of the rooms. The baby… Someone called out, “The child, where’s the child?” and there was a rush for the basement. There they found the child, still in its cradle, the side of its mouth laid open with a blow, the left side of the face battered, and the throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body. The slayings and their brutality shocked […]
March 15, 2012

Book review: “Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck

Every once in a while, when I’m in the basement and can see the foundations of our two-flat, or rummage in a closet and notice a crack in the plaster in the corner, or sit at my computer and look at the wallpaper that previous owners put up in the room, I wonder about the history of my home. That history is the procession of people and families who lived here — in the second-floor apartment where we live, in the first-floor apartment which we rent to another family and in the basement where my wife has her office and I have my research files. It’s also the time-lapse photography of what, on our block, was built first and what came next. Did our two-flat stand here as a single structure at some point a century ago? Or was it among a handful of early structures? What was along our street before that four-story apartment building at the end of the block was erected, taking up three or four lots? I suspect many people have thoughts like these. Even if you are the first person to live in a structure, you probably wonder what was there before? A worker’s cottage? […]
March 5, 2012

Book review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s intention in “The Art of Fielding” seems to be to subvert the traditional sports story — boy of great talent hones his craft, reaches heights, stumbles but learns from his errors (sometimes, literally) to become a better player and man. Here, Henry Skirmshander is a brilliant, if light-hitting, high school shortstop who is spotted by Mike Schwartz and recruited for the Westish College baseball team. On campus, Schwartz, the team’s catcher and a year older than Henry, takes the willowy freshman under his wing. He teaches Henry how to train, bulks him up, sharpens his hitting and transforms him into the team’s leading batter, its field general and heart and soul. Henry’s skill is so prodigious that, as his name is being talked about for one of the high draft rounds, he is on the verge of breaking the college record for games without an error, long held by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez. Rodriguez is not only a Hall-of-Fame legend but also the author of “The Art of Fielding,” a compendium of savvy and sometimes gnomic advice about how to play baseball and live life the right way. So far so good, but, during the game in […]
February 15, 2012

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace

When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. On the opening page of “Being Dead,” Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting to decompose. What happens to those […]
February 13, 2012

Book review: “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

Reading the last line of Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader,” I laughed out loud. I can’t guarantee you will, but I suspect you will find this short 2007 novel funny and surprisingly thoughtful. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II stumbling into a deep passion for books, particularly novels. And about how this new avocation brings into her life a sudden flood of other voices, experiences and perspectives that change her radically. After a long life of dutifully going through the motions — which, when you get down to it, in this age when royals wield no real power, is what the Queen and her family spend their lives doing — she begins thinking. Indeed, the Queen realizes, with regret, that, throughout her many years, she has met many literary figures but uniformly failed to take advantage of their acquaintance since she hadn’t read any of their works. “But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?” says Sir Kevin, her personal secretary, a supercilious New Zealander. “Of course, but briefing is not reading,” she responds. “In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, […]