Jeff Minick

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The Machiavelli Covenant by Allan Folsom. Forge Books,2006. 560 pages

The last 20 years have seen the creation of a special niche within the genre of ÒSuspense NovelsÓ as more and more books have appeared featuring a tiny group of protagonists facing great odds as they uncover some secret from the past.

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Evolution In A Nutshell by Martin Malloy. Trafford Publishing, 2007. 302 pages

Evolution is one of those wonderfully fiery topics which, when broached at parties or family gatherings, can convert otherwise reasonable friends and relatives into raging maniacs, shouting, slamming their fists onto the table, and crunching beer cans against their heads (somewhat like chimpanzees signaling irritation or fear).

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The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Doubleday, 2007. $22.95

Web 2.0 is killing our culture.

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How To Make A Journal Of Your Life by D. Price. Ten Speed Press, $9.95.

Ant Farm by Simon Rich. Random House, $12.95.


Many people have attempted at least once in their lives to keep a journal. Whether they use one of those expensive, leather-bound journals with creamy white paper from their local bookstore or simply a cheap notebook from Wal-Mart, they set out to chronicle their lives for their own pleasure and perhaps for the edification of their offspring.

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In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 by X.J. Kennedy. — The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 224 pages

Although tens of thousands of American citizens today may call themselves poets, the fact is that poetry has hit hard times. Despite the fact that verse seems conducive to our hamster-wheel, ADD culture — poetry does, after all, have the virtue of brevity; even a slow reader could gulp down three or four poems of average length in less time than it takes to eat a Happy Meal — we have more poets than ever before and fewer readers of poetry. Some commentators have remarked that even poets themselves don’t read much poetry anymore.

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Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker. Indigo Publishing, 2007. 224 pages.

Bill Bryson’s account of his time on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, revealed that the chief amusements of the Trail are not the flowers, trees, peaks or bears, but the other human beings encountered on the trail. Katz in particular, Bryson’s fat and funny companion on the trail, stays in the minds of readers longer than the descriptions of the weather or history of the Appalachian Trail.

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God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages

Every once in a while a book sees print that inadvertently tells the unwashed what the elite thinks of them. Massa waltzes out of the Big House —Washington, Manhattan, Beverly Hills — rubs elbows with the field hands, and then retreats to the Big House to write the other massas about conditions on the plantation. Sometimes Massa morphs into an amateur anthropologist, breathlessly explaining to fellow denizens of the West Side or Georgetown the mores of the poor dumb savages she has encountered in the foreign wastelands of Tennessee, Kansas, and Wyoming.

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bookWhat would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?

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bookMichael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.

Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical.  The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.

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bookIn Frank B. Robinson’s Thirty Days Hath September (ISBN 978-1-4701-6725-7), a man with a murky past, Alex Madrid, finds temporary employment as a security guard at tiny Black Creek College in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The year is 1976, the tail end of September, and a rising tide of murder and abduction forces Madrid to confront his own past, a college on the verge of bankruptcy stained by the killing of one young student and the disappearance of another, and the escape from prison of the Weasel, a sadist and killer who has sworn vengeance on Madrid.

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Suppose this was your household budget:

• Annual family income………………....$23,400

• Money family spends annually….....$35,900

• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500

• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000

• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385

Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.

Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).

Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.

Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).

Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?

Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.

Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.  

Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.

Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.

“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.

It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who lives in Asheville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.

Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?

Our words matter.

Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.

In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.

Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”

The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.

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Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.

Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.

If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.

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Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.    

In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.

Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.

What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:

“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”

Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.

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In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.

Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.

For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.

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Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.

On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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In The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories (ISBN 978-1-4697-7768-9, $20.95), James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce — that doubling-up is not a misprint — have shared, perhaps inadvertently, the secrets to a fulfilling life. Like a fine symphony, which often consists of four parts, all of them intertwined in some way, bound together by tone and motif, The Guys in the Gang offers four important ingredients for leading a full and worthy life: faith, family, friends, and fun.

Both of these men (they are distinguished in the book by reference to the streets, Ada and Carpenter, where they grew up. James “Ada” Joyce lives in Waynesville.) came of age in Irish-Catholic Chicago in the heady years following World War II. This was the era when the Catholic Church held sway over its parishioners in ways that today seem as strange as fins on cars and rotary dial phones. The nuns directed the parochial schools, the priests commanded the churches, and the monsignors and bishops ruled over them all.

Joyce and Joyce both suffered the usual abuses of parochial school — Brother Sloan, the religion teacher, would “simply flail away at you slapping, punching, and kicking” — and grew up in families in which faith was as familiar as the daily paper. “Ada” Joyce, for example, writes that his father turned off the television every day of Lent and that his mother, a leader in the large parish church, frequently said the rosary on the two-hour drive to her family’s farm. (One of the Mysteries of the Rosary is “The Agony in the Garden,” which Joyce’s friends, who traveled with him on these excursions, later renamed “The Agony in the Car.”)

Family, too, played a role in shaping these two men. Both men came out of strong families. Both men honor this bond by speaking highly of their parents, wives, children, and various relatives.

It is, however, the portraits of their friends and their mutual adventures that distinguishes The Guys in the Gang from similar memoirs. Through high school and into the years immediately following, both men belonged to the same gang of friends, guys who partied hard, worked at all sorts of after-school jobs, and indulged in their spare time in all sorts of pranks, some of them silly, some of them truly dangerous. These accounts make up some of the most humorous portions of the book. At one point, 16-year-old Jim “Ada” Joyce is driving his Dad’s new Olds 88 when one of the gang asked how fast the car could go.

“I put the accelerator to the floor and our heads snapped back. We went past 100 like it wasn’t there; 110 was gone and the max, 120, provided no obstacle.

“The speedometer was a circle with a yellow needle pointing to speed. The needled continued around the circle until it hit zero, completing 360 degrees. Then it went “twang,” popped off the spindle and came to rest at the bottom of the glass. A thin, plastic coated wire now appeared behind the numbers. I immediately slowed down and said, ‘Oh, s**t!’”

There are some great stories about the “gang,” and “Ada” Joyce has the eye for details and irony that will bring a smile to the reader’s face.

Carpenter Joyce, who became a Chicago fireman, reports more somberly on the fate of the neighborhood. Both Joyces grew up in the civil rights era and racial unrest, and Carpenter Joyce tells of the demise of the Saint Sabina parish when integration came to the neighborhood. As in cities across the nation, African-Americans moved into some urban neighborhoods, and whites moved out. Here Joyce gives us a first-hand look at “white flight” and its influence on this particular Chicago parish.

In the second half of their memoir, the Joyce duo gives us a brief record of their adult lives. “Ada” Joyce, who has already recounted his Army and Vietnam experiences in Pucker Factor 10 and his work as a psychoanalyst in Use Eagles If Necessary, focuses here on this work as a businessman, while “Carpenter” Joyce briefly gives an account of his life-long work with the Chicago fire department. Once again their reminiscences provide a good deal of humor while at the same time shining a light on certain aspects of human nature. This last part of the book also contains a number of memorable farewells to friends who have died.

What marks the book overall is its sense of esprit and fun. These are two men who have, by most measures, lived what society considers successful lives. In addition to earning a good living, each man has also faced various ordeals and emerged with a sense of amusement intact. Both have a knack for seeing the humorous side of difficult situations, a sense of the absurd which doubtless helped carry them far in life. It is their sense of fun and their recognition of the ridiculous that has carried them through life and carries the reader through the memoir.

(Jeff Minick can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories by James T. Joyce. iUniverse, 2012. 276 pages.

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Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”

Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.

We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.

Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).

Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)

Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.

The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.

Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.

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Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?

Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.

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Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."

It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.

Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.

Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"

In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.

These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:

"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."

To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.

One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:

"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."

Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.

Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.

We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.

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Twenty minutes a day.

In early January, writing in my book column for this paper, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 20 minutes a day from a bucket-list of books, heavy tomes which I’d laid aside in the corners of my mind to read but which seemed destined to go on collecting dust until I too became dust. After compiling what seemed a formidable list and a simple rule that allowed me to make up any missed sessions by week‘s end, I began reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

The time commitment was a crucial element in my project. Given my schedule, 30 minutes a day of unbroken reading from a classic was a daunting prospect. That daily half an hour would hang from me, I knew, like a convict’s chains. Fifteen minutes a day seemed weak and somehow formulaic, a quarter hour administered daily like medicine. No — 20 minutes a day struck me as a good compromise, a tough, viable, and worthy ambition.

The results? In the past two months, in addition to the magazines and books I read for pleasure, the books I read for review, and the books I read for the classes I teach, I have also read in their entirety Jane Austen’s Emma, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, and The New Testament’s Book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. Though I usually fit the reading into my schedule — I frequently accomplished my 20-minute stint while riding the elliptical at the local Y — I did miss some days but was diligent about making them up before the week’s end. (This past week was particularly difficult for work-related reasons, which means that I must in the next two days double my sessions).

And what have I learned from my reading? From the books themselves I have gained several insights. From Emma, which was the only book on the list which I had previously read, I learned first what I already knew, that I will never join that company of devotees who elevate Austen to the inner circle of literary gods. I admire her talents from afar, much as I admire certain saints, but am not enticed to devote to her more of my time or study. Yet I did find fascinating the comparison between her age and our own. Separated by less than two centuries, the world of Jane Austen seems as removed from ours as that of Caesar. Continually while I read the book, I would stack her era of leisurely hours, slow news, and careful courtship against our own harried, internet-driven, sex-drenched age, and would find myself envying Austen’s characters their more deliberate days.

From Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and politico who wrote his Consolations while imprisoned and awaiting execution, I studied again the old lesson of what matters in this world. A Christian and a philosopher, Boethius in Consolations engages in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy regarding the virtues, the ladder of wisdom, and the relationship between free will and predestination hooked me. The condemned man writes simply and in that catechetic dialogue practiced by the ancients, and I was able to follow his arguments until nearly the last, when he lost me on his explanation of free will and predestination. (Lady Philosophy kindly let me off the hook when she declared that God, who is outside of time, sees in a different way than humans do).

From Acts and the Pauline Letters, fragments of which I hear frequently at Mass, I came to realize how much a rebel St. Paul was. In Acts he is always just a step ahead of one mob or another, and in his letters he is constantly exhorting his followers to ignore the differences between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” and to pursue instead the “new way” as laid down by Christ. Paul fully lives up to his reputation for being harsh on matters of sex, and he strikes me as a man with whom a supper shared might not be the most laughter-filled evening of my life, but he is also clearly filled with the love of his new faith and eager to communicate its radical new way to those mired in old prejudices. (I also learned that the Bible remains loaded with a dynamite all its own. When reading it at the gym, I was aware several times of nervous glances from those exercising around me. “Uh oh,“ their faces said. “Another religious fanatic.“ Twice my reading roused brief conversations, not, unfortunately, with lovely women, but with one man who seemed permanently angry with God and with another who was truly as nuts as I undoubtedly appeared to the non-believers around me).

My greatest lesson came not from the books, however, but from the power of 20 minutes. I am a slow learner at times, but I have finally realized the value of a space of time, even 20 minutes, when set under the throne of discipline. Reading 20 minutes a day for two months has allowed me to absorb truths from a 19th century spinster, a sixth century philosopher, and a first century tentmaker. More importantly, my little experiment has shown me the power of applied time. Suddenly many things seem possible — not only for me but for others as well. Want to learn to tango? Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months will bring you onto the dance floor. Aikido? Twenty minutes a day will eventually find you king of the dojo. Cooking? Add twenty minutes to your culinary preparation each evening, and you can break away from those frozen pizzas and dull salads. From flower arranging to piano playing, from memorizing poetry to bumping up your math grades, from hitting three-pointers to deepening your prayer life: 20 minutes a day will do the trick.

And now — back to Dante and a trip like none I’ve ever taken.

 

The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius translated by Richard Green. Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1962. 160 pages.

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There are many reasons to love the writing of Ray Bradbury. His early short stories — science fiction “lite,” tales of his midwestern youth, accolades to writers like Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, Twilight Zone accounts of life in mid-twentieth century America — remain in print and still attract teenage readers outside schoolhouse hallways. His jeremiads in these stories against the modern mechanization of the soul remain fresh and lively even 50 years after they first appeared in print. His style, a sort of splashing of words onto paper — has an American writer ever enjoyed such a love affair with the exclamation point? — still entertains. Bradbury has said in numerous interviews that writers shouldn’t write unless it’s “fun,” a refreshing take since so many writers over the last hundred years have spoken of the difficulty and angst of writing, and this sense of fun comes to vivid life in Bradbury’s writing.

In the negative column is the fact that Bradbury’s stories and novels of the last 30 years are weakly plotted self-parodies. Most of these saw print because of the writer’s reputation rather than their worth. Any reader who has followed Bradbury can find the weakness in these more recent stories in their syntax alone: the thin paragraphs, the false excitement in some of the diction, the tired exclamations.

Yet the prose of the younger Bradbury still has a spring-like air about it, and it is this writer that Jonathan R. Eller examines in a new biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (ISBN 978-0-252-03629-3, $34.95). Fittingly published by the University of Illinois — Ray Bradbury spent his early youth in Waukegan, Illinois — this rich, dense account should appeal to a broad spectrum of Bradbury fans. Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University and the cofounder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, spent hundreds of hours interviewing Bradbury’s friends, other writers, his principal biographer, his wife Maggie (now deceased), his daughter Alexandra, and Ray Bradbury himself.

From these sources Eller has given us a fine look into the life, thoughts, and stories from his birth in 1920 to the 1950s. He shows us how the boy from Illinois who came of age in California created himself as a writer, following the advice of a dozen different mentors while reading himself into an education. Bradbury, like Hemingway, is an autodidact; he never had the money to go to a university, but instead worked after high school selling newspapers on a Los Angeles sidewalk while enrolling in that least-expensive of educational institutions: the public library. Eventually, after a period of trial-and-error, Bradbury realized that the richness of his own life — his love of fantasy and mystery, of dinosaurs and space travel, of great writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hemingway, and Wolfe, his boyhood days in Illinois — was the palette from which he should paint his stories. He wrote daily in those years, building his stories from a variety of techniques like word association and creative mental play.

In describing how Bradbury refused to be categorized as a genre writer — in this case, of the “weird tale” — Eller sums up some of Bradbury’s approaches to work in the middle of Becoming Ray Bradbury. He writes that Bradbury was “… ignoring reductionist genre rules and traditions whenever they interfered with his own intuitive approach to writing. He continued to minimize the art of plotting, for his Muse worked best when the characters seemed to write their own stories. He would continue to use the loose framework of science fiction, or the weird tale, or even the occasional backdrop of noir crime, but he was writing about people rather than about science, or terror, or detection.”

Becoming Ray Bradbury should appeal not only to readers of Bradbury’s work, but to anyone interested in writers and writing. We can see in this book how a young man became a writer and how writing itself, with all its travail and uncertainty, can bring to its creator a great sense of joy.

•••

In How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (ISBN 978-0-8499-4835-0, $14.99), Andy Andrews, author of The Noticer and The Traveler’s Gift, has written what amounts to an essay published in the form of a book. This is a small volume of only 80 pages, and the word count per page runs to less than half of that found in most books.

Despite its brevity, however, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? — the title refers to those murdered by the Nazis, not only the Jews, but the other millions of people thrown into concentration camps for their beliefs — serves as a sobering reminder about the value of truth in our personal and public lives. Reminding us of Hitler’s remark in Mein Kampf, that “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” Andrews then asks the question: What happens to a society in which truth is absent?

We live now in a society in which truth may not be absent (though a good many people, perhaps a majority, deny its existence), but in which it can be so covered up by information, conflicting points of views, and outright deceptions, that it might as well be absent. Our politicians and many in our “news” media deliberately mislead us, but what is worse, we often allow them to do so. We expect to be deceived, and like the readers of the newspaper Pravda (“The Truth”) in Soviet Russia, we find ourselves having to read between the lines to dig out the real truth behind a government policy or some story on the six o’clock news.

Perhaps the real value to this thin little slip of a book are the questions asked in the Reader’s Guide at the end. These questions and the ease with which the book can be read make it an ideal tool for book clubs, the classroom, and political discussions. To begin to reflect on these questions of what truth means to us, what lies we ourselves have told and why, and what steps might be taken to bring truth to the fore in the public square, is to begin looking at ourselves and our present difficulties in a new light.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Recently I watched several early episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a fine television series centered on a New York family with a tradition of law enforcement. The father is the New York City Police commissioner, his father is a retired policemen, and his children include a detective, an assistant district attorney, a rookie cop, and a policeman killed on duty. The series is justly touted for its realism regarding both police work and family dynamics. Yet in one of these episodes, the detective participates in a raid; he runs alone up a fire escape to enter through the window of an apartment while an entire contingent of fellow officers breaks through the front door. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far, the commissioner, a widower, is dating a television reporter, but still wears what definitely appears to be a wedding band on his left hand.

Questions: why is the detective running up the fire escape without backup? And why does the commissioner’s lover ignore the wedding band?

Hollywood often gives us movies or television shows in which coincidence is not justified, logic is sacrificed for emotion, and plot and character motivation is as flimsy as a doublewide in a tornado. Style trumps story, drama and excitement run roughshod over reason. Sometimes the magic works, and we are tricked against our better judgment into accepting certain premises, but just as often the curtain blows aside and we see the man working the controls. The magic ends, and we are left with a piece of creaky, irritating machinery.

Unfortunately, these same defects appear in some of the novels we may read.

In Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, set in an artist’s colony in upstate New York, the story grips the reader from the first page. The narrator of this Gothic tale, Ellis Brooks, is at work on her first novel. Goodman has a genuine talent for creating believable female protagonists, and through Ellis we come to know the other members of the colony: the renowned novelist Nat Loomis; the landscape architect David Fox; the eccentric and lovable poet Zalman Bronsky; the brooding biographer Bethesda Graham.

As in her outstanding first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, Goodman displays a generous talent for creating tension, both among the characters and in the mystic elements — ghosts, mediums, a past-haunted present — surrounding the Bosco estate. The reader becomes caught up in the lives of the artists as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of the estate with its secret rooms, underground tunnels, mysterious sculptures, and living secrets.

About three quarters of the way through the novel, however, Ellis’ ability to “read” the other characters and to summon up the estate’s dark past become tiresome rather than intriguing. Worse, the connections of the other characters to the estate — by genealogical descent, by a past of which they are unaware — finally become too unreal to be viable. Worse still, for a reader skeptical about séances, poltergeists, and other supernatural phenomena, the last few pages of The Ghost Orchid become a tremendous cheat. The characters suddenly turn to cardboard, the plot to air, and the reader leaves the book feeling slightly ridiculous for having devoted several hours of breath and effort to so awful a contraption.

In The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Childs takes us back to 1997 when Reacher is still working as a special investigator in the Army. Sent to Mississippi to look into the murders of young women near an Army base serving as headquarters for secret missions in the Middle East, Reacher falls for the town’s sheriff, ex-Marine Elizabeth Devereux. Between bouts in the bedroom the two of them try to track down the killers. The Affair is vintage Reacher: finely-tuned dialogue, beautiful women who want to take Reacher to the sheets, Reacher’s own eccentricities (even here, while in the Army, he buys his clothing at thrift shops and throws away his old clothes rather than washing them and using them again).

From my reading of earlier Reacher novels, I had already learned that I needed to suspend certain conventional ideas regarding plot. In one novel, for example, Childs has Reacher randomly get off the bus in a small town. Before the novel is finished and the bodies are stacked higher than the bus, Reacher discovers his brother, a special agent, dead in the town’s morgue. To enjoy the novel, then, means that we must overlook the fact that the odds of this occurrence are spectacularly high.

But in The Affair, about midway through the story, I came to the final end of tolerance for Jack Reacher and his creator. Here Reacher has talked with a young black man, the brother of one of the murder victims, and has encouraged him to join the Army. The young man goes to the nearby post to enlist, but is shot dead by a group of vigilantes guarding the property. Reacher tracks these men down, discovers why they have been stationed around the post, then shoots one of them in cold blood and tells the others to haul the body away and never return.

It was on that page that I closed the book and promised myself never again to read one of these novels. Here we have a military policeman murdering a citizen and then casually telling his two buddies to take the body away. There are apparently no consequences for this killing; I didn’t read any farther into the book, but the other Reacher novels still depict our man running around the country single-handedly killing platoons of bad guys and eradicating evil. The sheer numbing stupidity of such a plot twist, and all the other unbelievable situations in this book and others in the series, have finally brought me back to my senses.

The appropriately titled The Affair brought an end to my own affair with these books. Unlike the traditional breakup line, however, I will say in ending our relationship: “It’s not me. It’s you.”

 

The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Childs. Delacorte Press , 2011. 416 pages.

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Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.

In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”

When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”

Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.

Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”

A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.

From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“

The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”

 

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages

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The New Year’s resolution typically leads a short and tragic life. Its father is misdeeds, its mother remorse. Once born, the resolution swarms about its maker as irritating as a fruit fly. Often, too, it lives no longer than the common fruit fly, which is to say about two weeks. Its demise usually evokes in its pall-bearer tangled emotions of foolhardy chagrin and wild, celebratory relief.    

Growing older does occasionally mean growing wiser, and over the last few years I have abstained from making New Year’s resolutions. For most of my adult life, I had made such pledges — to quit smoking, to drink less, to lose weight, to get into shape, to listen better — and while I eventually achieved some control over these vices, my change in habits never came about as the result of a New Year’s vow.

This year is different. Let me explain why I decided to make a resolution and how I determined to carry it out. But first the resolution:

“Resolved, that I will spend 20 minutes per day for the year 2012 reading the following books: Jane Austen’s Emma; Dante’s The Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation); Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy; the Oresteia trilogy; the Pauline Letters of the New Testament; G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I have previously read, but which has long demanded another visit); Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Selected Poetry; Joseph Pearce‘s Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Missed reading sessions must be made up within a week’s time.”

For more than a decade, I have vowed to read certain authors and books, writing that I had missed or neglected along the way. In my twenties, after I abandoned my graduate school studies in medieval history, I flung myself into fiction and poetry with the abandon of a man unleashed from prison, going from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, from John Donne to Sylvia Plath, from Scott Fitzgerald to Evelyn Waugh. I read these authors and many more for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in the books, and I wanted to learn to write.

By the time I entered my thirties, most of the books I was reading were newer, and by the time my forties and fifties rolled around, nearly all the books were contemporary. The classics still beckoned, and my life in a classroom has kept me in touch with older works of literature, but generally my reading has aimed, both from choice and necessity, at new works of fiction, history, and biography.

But the minutes tick away, and the old books call to me. The time has come to pay them heed. If asked why I want to have read certain books before growing infirm or dying — what difference will such reading make, really, one may ask — I have no more ready answer than the old-timer who wants to climb Everest or the grandmother who wants to run a marathon. The compulsion comes from inside the heart and defies ready analysis.  

Resolutions are effective which come with this axiom: the more specific the goal, the greater chance for success. The man who sets out to “lose weight” fails nine times out of ten. The man who resolves to lose a pound a month between January and September has a fighting chance. I therefore decided to be as exacting as possible in the construction of my own pledge to myself.

Like everyone in today’s mad-rush world, I am busy with commitments. Days often pass in a blur of teaching, writing, caring for a teenager’s wants and needs, and completing the usual necessary household duties. My plan had to take into account the exigencies of my existence while at the same time allowing for some sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes seemed a good amount of time, an easily remembered number less imposing than half an hour and more worthy than a quarter hour. Twenty minutes a day may seem inconsequential, but it adds up to well over a hundred hours of annual reading, and I am a reasonably fast reader. Self-knowledge led me to include an alternate plan in case, whether by accident or the demands of my schedule, I did miss a session of reading. I wanted a chance to compensate for my failure.

As for the books — I could have chosen any number of other titles. But the books selected here, with the exception of Caulaincourt and Pearce, are ones that I come across again and again in my reading. Some books are included to offset omissions in my education that are just plain embarrassing: to have neglected Dante is, given my interests and education, inexcusable. Some are appropriate to my stage of life; Boethius, for example, wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while under a sentence of death, a circumstance that looms somewhat larger in my life now than it did at age 20. Hopkins I have read in bits and pieces, and wanted a more disciplined approach to his work. I have read several Greek plays, and their stark prose and bare emotions drew me toward the Oresteia. I enjoy military history, hence Thucydides and Caulaincourt. (I also want to learn more about Napoleon and nineteenth century Russia, so the Caulaincourt fits several bills). Anna Karenina appeals to me for reasons of nostalgia; I can vividly remember reading the book and thinking it the best novel I’d ever read. The time seemed ripe to repeat the experiment and see what I think now of poor doomed Anna.

One great difference between this resolution and those made earlier in life is, of course, the fact that I am announcing it in a newspaper. Pressure can shape diamonds or break boulders. We’ll see how it goes.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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That time of year has arrived when ritual and custom weave their magical threads into our lives. We sip Uncle George’s eggnog and bourbon, made from a recipe which his Uncle George inherited; we feast on ham at Grandma’s table; we sing carols off-key with the lusty disregard of a drunken sailor. Movie-lovers turn to old seasonal favorites like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street;” families open presents from beneath the tree, each in their special way; children play with new toys in a tangle of ribbons and wrapping papers while mommy and daddy doze on a sofa.

Readers, too, some of them, may follow some tradition in regard to the season. A father might recite to his little ones Clement Moore‘s “Night Before Christmas,” with its parental prayer that the “children were nestled all snug in their beds.” A celebrant with a strong sentimental streak may find satisfaction in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” that classic little tale of Della and Jim, of watchchains and combs, and the meaning of sacrifice.

Some readers this season will open Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. (By season, of course, I mean that period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the old Twelve Days of Christmas before our Black Fridays, parties, and feasting made so many of the holiday-hung-over happy to toss their dead trees into the street before the New Year). A score of movies and plays about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Christmas ghosts have embedded this tale so firmly in our blood and nerves that two words alone — ”Bah! Humbug!” — can conjure up entire scenes from a London buried long ago by time and fashion.

Dickens’ tale is so familiar to all of us, in fact, that we can open this novella to any page and place ourselves immediately within the story. There is a great delight in such an arrangement, because there is great delight to be found in Dickens’ words. We all know the story of the stingy man visited by ghosts, but our knowledge has often kept readers from exploring the original story. This is unfortunate, for those who love the English language and have never read A Christmas Carol might not realize the treat they are missing. Here on every page is Dickens at his most delightful, reveling in description, puns, and conversation, the prose bubbling like the story’s steam pudding, the author’s enthusiasm for his tale infecting us with bacilli composed of happiness and joy. His jocularity and passion sweep us along with Scrooge, so that by the time the last ghost has visited the old skinflint we can truly feel Scrooge’s delight on waking in his bed with the opportunity to make amends and expiate his crimes of selfishness and meanness of heart:

“‘I don’t know what to do!’ Scrooge cried, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”

Another story worth revisiting, older than Scrooge and his ghosts, and familiar to an even wider readership, comes to us from best-selling authors Matthew and Luke. Leaving aside the theology behind their telling (it is best your reviewer in particular leave aside theology, as his knowledge of that subject is approximately equivalent to his knowledge of homemade firecrackers, that is, he may eventually cobble something together, but is quite likely in the process to blow himself to hell and gone), let us instead look to the literary aspects of this story to explain its longevity and appeal.

We begin with a teenage girl who, according to the custom of her time, is espoused to an older man when she mysteriously becomes pregnant and is soon, as one translation puts it, “great with child.” This girl, Mary, accompanies her espoused, a carpenter named Joseph, to the city of Bethlehem, where she delivers her child in a stable and cradles him in a feeding trough for livestock. (Many will later consider this same infant’s flesh to be the food that brings everlasting life). Strange events then occur: angelic beings cavort in the skies over the tiny city, shepherds visit the stable in the night to pay homage to the child, wise men from the East follow a star and bring gifts fit for a king. Others, particularly a woman named Anna and a man named Simeon, proclaim the newborn the savior of their people.

This celebration is short-lived: Joseph receives word via a dream that the local king, fearful of a prophesy that such a child will seize his throne, plans to kill the baby. The family flees to another country before the king orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants in hopes that one of the dead will be the baby. Later the cruel king dies a deserved horrible death, and the tiny family returns to its homeland.

Matthew and Luke tell their story in a few pages. Here is no Dickensian excess. The prose is as simple, stark, and succinct as that found in one of Hemingway’s short stories. The authors use few adjectives and employ minimal descriptions of landscape, clothing, style, or manners. Comment on the emotions of the characters is almost non-existent.

Despite the absence of all these conventional literary devices, the story has stayed with us for a long time. Millions of people all around the world have read or heard the story. It stays with us because it possesses all the elements of a great story: love, birth, mystery, murder, shepherds and kings, angels, wise men, fools. It has, as some critics say, the power of story. One guy even called it a part of the “greatest story ever told.”

Highly recommended.

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“What do women want?”

During the month of December, Sigmund Freud’s famous question haunts the minds of many men. Unlike the perturbed analyst, however, men face a more practical and restricted version of this question, specifically: “What do women — mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, wives — want to find under the tree on Christmas morning?”

On the Saturday following Thanksgiving, I landed in Asheville’s Barnes and Noble, where I meandered through the best-sellers and gift books, seeking for review books that might appeal to women at Christmas. A quarter of an hour had expired when three successive thoughts occurred: 1) I wasn’t sure what books were popular with women this season; 2) I was in a large bookstore; and 3) the bookstore was full of women interested in books. Why not simply ask them for their recommendations?

Here a natural caution exerted itself. Given the legions of sexual oddballs in our society, aware that I myself had reached the cusp of that age when someone might mistake me for a “Dirty Old Man,” and fully cognizant of the fate of those adventurers who accost their subjects with rash familiarity — think of the “Crocodile Hunter” and his grisly end — I deemed it prudent to take certain precautions in my approach to female shoppers and staff. I would avoid any female who looked anywhere near the age of 18. I would quickly identify myself and explain that I was writing a book review column for The Smoky Mountain News. I would ask only for first names and then inquire as to their recommendations.

This plan worked, as the adage goes, like a charm. I survived with all appendages intact and learned a few things about the literary tastes of the female of the species. Gentlemen, here is a summary of my time in that jungle of print, paper, and perfume.

Emily, the youngest of my subjects — I would place her in her mid-20a — was holding a copy of In Search of the Knights Templar: A Guide to the Sites of Britain. “I’m buying it for myself,” she explained. “I’d like to go to Britain in a few years.” But what would she give to her friends? “Well, I like Stephen King. I just started reading him. And Charles Dickens. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite all-time books.”

After duly noting Emily’s choices, I found Donna seated on the carpeting of the New Age aisle with six or eight books stacked at her knees. She reminded me that the key to purchasing books for presents was a familiarity with the recipient’s interests. “For example, I like books on spirituality,“ she said, pointing to the piled volumes, “and I’m looking at these books for myself. But if I buy for friends I mostly go for cookbooks or biographies.” (Here I will mention that I had earlier turned over the pages of Tupelo Honey Café: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen. Written by Elizabeth Sims and Chef Brian Somoskus, this colorfully illustrated volume would make a fine gift for anyone with an interest in cooking — or for that matter, in eating).

Susie, a clerk in the store, noted that best-sellers were always popular. “The Help is popular this year, too,” she said. “That book is older, but we sell a lot of them. And children and teens are now asking for their books for Christmas by title, which helps out their parents a lot with shopping.”

So what were young women reading this year?

“They still seem to enjoy paranormal romances, like the Twilight books,” she said. (Here I wanted to comment that my own encounters with romance had all smacked of the paranormal, but restrained myself). “Biographies are popular, too, for women and men as gifts,” she said.

Andrea, one of the store’s managers, prefaced her comments by saying “My reading tastes probably aren’t typical of a lot of female readers,” a remark made by every woman to whom I spoke. Andrea liked true-crime books and had just finished Jay Cee Duggard’s A Stolen Life: A Memoir. “A lot of our female customers enjoy historical fiction. A lot buy religious fiction.” (I had noticed the large section of Christian novels on the second floor). “Vicky Lane and Sarah Allen are two local authors who are popular with our female readers. In terms of the best-sellers, Patterson and Sparks appeal to women.” Later I found the new books by both authors — Patterson’s The Christmas Wedding and Nicholas Sparks’ The Best of Me — displayed prominently both on the store’s front table and on the best-seller aisle.

Barnes and Noble also features The Nook, its answer to Amazon’s electronic book-reader, the Kindle. When I asked Kate, one of the Nook sales staff, whether more men or women bought the Nook, she thought that purchases ran about 60 to 40 in favor of women. “Women who like reading like the Nook. In fact, people from ages 6 to 90 love the Nook,” she added. “Yesterday we sold $17,000 worth of equipment, and that doesn’t include the add-ons.”

There you have it, gentlemen, a feast of print: electronic book devices, best-sellers, cookbooks, biographies, novels of romance. Keep in mind, too, that these are only the hors d’oeuvres. Bookstores large and small serve a buffet aimed at many tastes.  

Poor Dr. Freud. Maybe all he had to do to find an answer to his question was ask.

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The rigors of holiday shopping are hard upon us, and bibliophiles, like everyone else, will turn their eyes toward bookshops, online stores and e-books to make purchases for their families and friends. It’s also that time of the season when clearing my own desk has become a necessity. Here, then, is a smorgasbord of books, mostly aimed at the male crew. Next time we’ll offer a similar feast for female lovers of the printed word.

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For those who didn’t get enough of Halloween, Michael Renegar’s Tar Heel Terrors: More North Carolina Ghosts and Legends (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 0-914875-59-0, $12) will be a welcome addition to the gifts under the tree. Renegar, who currently lives in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, includes here stories of Carolina ghosts from the coasts to the mountains.

Because he resides in the Piedmont, and because he attended Appalachian State University, Renegar is particularly good in his selection of ghosts stories from these areas. Having grown up in Boonville, which is near Winston-Salem, I found, for example, several stories here from that area which were completely unfamiliar to me. Renegar does include the classics, like the Little Red Man of Old Salem fame, but many of his stories here should be new to readers. His previous book, Roadside Revenants and Other North Carolina Ghosts and Legends, is also a fine collection, focusing on the ghosts who haunt North Carolina’s highways and including a chapter titled “Tips for the Would-be Ghosthunter.”

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An excellent choice of a gift for a young man is William J. Bennett’s The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (ISBN 978-1-5955-5271-6, $34.99). Bennett, author of the best-selling The Book of Virtues, offers in this 500-page tome a compilation of letters, interviews, essays, biographies, and historical accounts designed to embody what Bennett calls “the eternal qualities of manhood.”

Bennett’s book stands apart from some similar collections in its simplicity and appropriate selections. (Think Walter Newell’s collection What Is A Man? in which the editor does a fine job of surveying three thousand years of writing on manhood, but whose selections will not appeal to any but the most academic of teenagers).

Divided into sections ranging from “Man in War” to “Man in Prayer and Reflection,” The Book of Man gives us accounts ranging from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Paul Read’s Alive, but does so with younger male readers in mind. Bennett includes accounts of different soldiers in Afghanistan, the basketball team from Milan, Ind., featured in the movie “Hoosiers,” Davy Crockett’s discussion of the Constitution with a Tennessee farmer, Unabomber victim David Gelernter’s thoughts on marriage, and close to 300 other entries. Many of these selections will be unfamiliar to readers, and will perhaps inspire young men to search out the complete books and accounts of some of those featured here.

For young men and old, The Book of Man makes a fine Christmas gift.

•••

If William Bennett writes to inspire men, Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (ISBN 978-0-312-57997-5, $27.99) will leave the most cockeyed optimist in the country splashing more bourbon into his Christmas eggnog. Here, as he has done in previous books, Buchanan works statistics, history, economics and philosophy into a bomb that he then hurls at the reader through his book. Buchanan returns to some of the themes of his earlier best-sellers — the moral and economic decline of the West, the demographics behind our changing world, the tribalism which is slowly replacing nationalism (a trend which, as Buchanan writes, President Obama had the foresight, unlike so many other politicians, to discuss at length in a political address).

What sets this book apart from some of his work is that Suicide of a Superpower offers ideas which would appeal both to Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He favors labor unions, calls for the legalization of certain recreational drugs, and a closing of many of America’s overseas military bases while at the same time espousing Western culture and warning of the dangers of American out-of-control entitlement programs.

In the chapter titled “Demographic Winter,“ his examination of the world’s population statistics, an issue about which he has long taken a deep interest, Buchanan will shock some readers and remind those familiar with these numbers that countries such as Japan, Russia and most European countries are already finding themselves, given their declining populations, unable to support the social programs which the post-World War II years brought into being. (For readers interested in the European Union and its current overwhelming problems, see Nigel Farage on Youtube. It‘s an astonishing performance, one which no American politician could dare give even if capable of speaking so well). Buchanan writes:

“A time of austerity is at hand. And from the riots across France to the anarchist attack on Tory Party headquarters in London to the garbage left piled high and stinking on the streets of Marseille and Naples in the fall of 2010, Europe is not going gentle into that good night. But go she shall.”

Suicide of a Superpower is a warning that this same good night awaits us as well unless we Americans — and our leaders — come to grips with the problems facing us.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death by suicide. He has remained, of course, an icon of American letters, a legend, a man whose life and art still seem to tower over today’s writers. Only his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac have exerted the same kind of mythic literary pull on the popular imagination of his countrymen. There are Hemingway websites, numerous Hemingway biographies, Hemingway festivals and even Hemingway look-alike contests.

Joining the mania of all things Hemingway is biographer Paul Hendrickson. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (ISBN 978-1-4000-4162-6, 531 pages, $30), Hendrickson connects the life of Hemingway to his love of the sea and the boat on which he sailed for so many years, the Pilar. Hendrickson is a man of many gifts: a meticulous eye for research, a writer who can bring alive the past on paper, a biographer who clearly loves his subject but who has the courage to present his foibles in full. He brings all these talents to bear in this study of the Nobel Prize winning author who also was wounded in war, lived his youth in Paris, hunted lions in Africa, spent countless days fishing the Gulf Stream, and changed the shape of the American fiction.

In his prologue, Hendrickson lays out some general thoughts regarding Hemingway’s life, observations that other biographers have either missed or downplayed. He writes, for example, that “I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however un-postmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself.”

He alleges, too, that “there was so much more fear inside of Hemingway than he ever let on,” mostly a fear of suicide (in perhaps a related phobia, he was also, by his own admission, terrified of falling asleep in deep darkness). Hendrickson also believes Hemingway was a man of heroic stature, torn apart by a high sense of honor and an inability to meet his own standards.

Finally, despite Hemingway’s reputation for killing friendships and abusing those around him, Hendrickson tells us that Hemingway possessed a kind and compassionate side to his nature often overlooked by other biographers. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book, showing us examples of this gentler Hemingway: his tender letter to a nine-year-old boy with congenital heart disease, written just days before Hemingway took his own life; his loan of money to a young man in distress; his love and concern for his sons, at least until they grew to manhood; his agonies of guilt when he would hurt friends and loved ones.

Two problems do arise in Hemingway’s Boat, difficulties to which Hendrickson seems strangely blind. The first has to do with Hemingway’s alcoholism. Hemingway regarded drunks as “rummies,” and either scorned them or pitied them, as he pitied Fitzgerald, but he could never acknowledge that he himself was an alcoholic. Hendrickson knows of Hemingway’s drinking and surely knows how deeply it affected his relationships with others, his mental state, and the quality of his work, yet he rarely mentions this enormous flaw. We hear again and again that Hemingway drove friends away, but Hendrickson doesn’t seem to make the connection that Hemingway was for years a rummy himself.

He notes, as others have, Hemingway’s penchant for mishaps — he shot himself by accident, for example, while fishing on the Pilar — but again doesn’t tell the reader that these accidents were often caused by alcohol as much as by Hemingway’s famous clumsiness.

Stranger still is Hendrickson’s long treatment in the latter half of the book of Hemingway’s relationship with his son Gregory, known as Gigi to his father. Gregory led a life troubled by his relationships with his parents and wives, his sexual identity, his alcoholism and drugs. In 2001, he died as a transgendered Gloria Hemingway in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. (One note: when I worked as a clerk in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston from 1975-1976, Gregory Hemingway visited the store for a book signing of Papa, his account of his father. He struck me as the author has described him here — a nice man, diffident, interested in others).

Certainly Gregory’s wild life, his drinking, his drugs, his inability to accept responsibility for his actions, is sad and arouses our pity, and to look at his relationship with his father is worthy and just in understanding Hemingway, yet Hendrickson gives almost no space to Gregory’s relationship with his mother, Pauline. It was Pauline who, after her divorce, did the bulk of the parenting. Hendrickson does note some details of her life and her time with Gregory, but why spend so much time investigating the effects Hemingway had on Gregory’s life without examining at length the effect of his mother?    

Despite these failures in the book — and perhaps in part because of them, particularly the attempt to make so many connections between Hemingway and his third son — Hemingway’s Boat is one of the most compelling biographies of the year. This book will haunt you long after you have closed the covers, intruding at odd times into your emotions, roughing up the smooth waters of your thoughts like the winds on Hemingway’s sea.

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages.

Comment

In recent years, a few individuals have taken on large reading projects and then written books of their own about their literary odyssey. Reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, Adler’s Great Books, various millennium book lists: all have received such treatment. Still others have assigned themselves certain timed races based on a particular book, the best known of which is Julie Powell‘s decision to prepare all of the recipes found in Julia Child‘s first cookbook.

In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (ISBN 978-0-06-199984-0, $23.99), Nina Sankovitch undertakes such a scheme, but with a darker personal motive. When her older sister, her beloved Anne-Marie, dies at the age of 46, Sankovitch is left bereft and extremely depressed. She is particularly bothered, as are many who lose a loved one, by such questions as why her sister had died, why Anne-Marie had died instead of her, why she herself had deserved to live.

For three years, Sankovitch bore the pain and questions of her sister’s death. Then one day, while on a get-away weekend vacation to the beaches of Long Island, Sankovitch began reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She read through the afternoon and into the evening, and realized when she closed the covers of the book that she had read this classic in a single day. She decided then to try and read a book a day for a year, intuitively hoping that this reading would yield answers about her sister’s death and even the reason for her own existence. Of that evening, when her husband — he is surely to be admired for participating in her quest — asked her if she couldn’t read a book a week, she wrote:

“No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and pain.”

And so Sankovitch commenced her daily sprint, taking up classics like Forester’s The African Queen, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; newer works by authors like Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and Muriel Barbery; suspense and science fiction novels; biographies; young adult books. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair — the chair is a banged-up family treasure, stained and patched, which served as her reading headquarters — Sankovitch recounts in detail the pressure such reading put on her household chores and cooking, her duties to her husband and children, the difficulties brought by the exigencies of any modern daily life. Many evenings, she could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to maintain her book-a-day agenda.

What is best in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, however, is not the author’s literary criticism, but the way in which she blends her accounts of her reading with the story of her family and with broader human concerns.

In a minor chapter titled “Sex By The Book,” for instance, she addresses her own sexual desires even in the face of watching over four children, shopping and cooking, and reading her daily text. Through books like The Delta of Venus and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she finds revelations that help her understand her own sexual desires and her long and continuous love for her husband, Jack, and of the world they have made together “where we are safe — or as safe as we can be.”

Sankovitch also takes us into her childhood, which differed from that of many of her contemporaries. Both her parents were immigrants who had suffered as children during World War II, and both brought to the United States the European love of custom and music now all but lost even in their native lands. Sankovitch describes her mother and father listening to classical music on Sundays and taking their own pleasures from literature. Both were professionals — her father was a surgeon, her mother a university teacher — who frequently invited friends, students, and other visitors into their home.

Throughout her writing Sankovitch also comes back time and again to her sister, the memories they shared, the books they enjoyed, her death. Though she realizes that “there is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love,” her year of reading does bring her a sort of peace regarding Anne-Marie. She tells us that “reading one book a day was my year in a sanitorium,” and the answer which she derives from that sanitarium is that “our only answer to sorrow is to live, to live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement.” For Sankovitch, Cyril Connolly’s tag on the flyleaf — “Literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living” — takes on the import of a motto on a family crest. She reads herself back to health, finding in words and stories not only a respite from her hectic life, but an answer to that life.

One last lesson will strike to the heart of any reader who has suffered the death of a loved one. With the best of intentions, family members and friends will often tell the survivor that it is important to move on, to stay busy, to put the past away. There may be some truth to this advice, but in the pell-mell rush of the society in which we live, it is equally important to remember, as Sankovitch finally did, that to slow down, to contemplate, and to remember offer a reliable path to reconciliation and acceptance.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch. Harper, 2011. 256 pages.

Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher in Western North Carolina. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Comment

It is no secret that writers are influenced by authors whose work they admire. Though he would later turn his back on them, Ernest Hemingway felt the literary touch of contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein (his style was also molded by the “cable-ese” of his own newspaper reporting), while William Faulkner was drawn to French poets and to writers such as Balzac, who built his novels from a specific locale, what Faulkner would later call his “own little postage stamp of native soil.”

In a recent interview, novelist Dawn Tripp cited her own influences — Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, and others — all of whom write, as Tripp accurately states, novelistic structures that are not straightforward and linear in time, but instead are either fractured or mosaic in their construction of story and plot. Of this particular novelistic approach, which tells its story by building on the perceptions of characters and their take on other characters and events, Tripp accurately says that “there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the narrative ….”

In her latest novel, Game of Secrets (ISBN 978-4000-6188-4, $25), Tripp creates a story that fulfills these ambitions, a tale that, as she says, “is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way” than that provided by most authors. The fragmented structure of Game of Secrets immediately and intimately draws the reader into itself, piecing together a mosaic built from adultery and murder, from small-town New England lives, from Scrabble games played between two women who are friends and strangers to each other, from the passions of the young who return to a place and circumstances which they have both loved and hated.

Game of Secrets enlists a squad of narrators to tell its sad, lurid story. There is Jane Weld, 11 years old when her father, Luce, disappeared (his skull was later found with a single bullet hole in it), who loves poetry — she is particularly enamored of the verse of Dylan Thomas — and who now plays weekly Scrabble games with her murdered father‘s aged lover, Ada Varick. There is Marne, Jane’s angry, wandering daughter, who has returned to the village from California as a burnt-out case, who in knocking about the country has picked up a knack for origami, and who now finds herself attracted to Ray, Ada’s son. There are Ada’s sons: Ray, to whom Marne looks for affection, and the darkly flawed Huck, whose wild and despairing bitterness is rendered less alienating by his love for Jane.

Through the eyes of these men and women, all possessed by virtues and faults, all haunted by a past not of their own making, we come slowly to understand how the long-ago affair between Luce and the tempestuous Ada has carried its weight down through the passage of years. As Game of Secrets reveals its mysteries, the reader — along with the characters — comprehends the ramifications of that long-hidden crime and its effects on the members of the Varick and Weld families. The story is much like the Scrabble game written about in scrupulous detail by Tripp, the contest played between Ada and Jane that runs like an Alpine rope through most of the book, linking characters and events. We see that this game of words, of words building on words in surprising and startling ways, mirrors the relationships and history of the characters themselves.

In addition to her gifts for characterization and for creating suspense, Tripp — she is also the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water — gives us an intimate portrait of rural New England  itself. In reading Game of Secrets, we come to know Tripp‘s own “postage stamp of earth”: the ways of the town and the countryside, the tourists who vacation here in the summers, the hard lives of many of the natives, the play of air and wind and sunshine on the land and the sea. Here, for example, Marne takes note of the land while on a drive with Ray:

“When you first come home, you can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia. You see the idyll of the place — you see it like a person away might — the tranquil New-Englandy beauty, swatches of open land still left, the village at the Point, those cedar-shingled saltbox houses, the double-forked branch of the river, sea running into land.

“It’s a particular point of earth — you come home, and the light is like nowhere else. You think to yourself, I can do this. So you stay.”

Faulkner once famously observed that “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” Our own Thomas Wolfe, another author obsessed with time and its cumulative effects on the lives of all human beings, echoed this sentiment when he wrote at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel: “…our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.”

In Game of Secrets, Tripp reminds us once again that the past is always with us, that we struggle both to escape its clutching fingers and to embrace its terrible beauty, and that the secrets of the past, once revealed, may not only inflict painful wounds, but may also in the end bring healing and acceptance.

 

Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2011. 272 pages

Comment

Often the people, places, and things that we love most in this world become so familiar to us, so much a part of the tissue of our own lives, that only their end or impending loss reminds us of how much we truly value them. The descent of a loved one toward the grave, the loss of a family home by disasters natural or financial, the theft of some family heirloom: only when we suffer such misfortunes do we suddenly awake to the awful realization of what the loss meant to us, how much these treasures were a part of the tissue of our lives. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it very often does engender in us a blindness to the worth of those everyday people and objects which we take for granted.

This very human failure to appreciate fully the gifts bestowed on us by providence or by past sacrifice may extend to the national level. It is difficult today, for example, being citizens of a country built 200 years ago on a foundation of freedom, to recognize how revolutionary are the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When written, those words, composed though they were by a slave-holder, were utterly new to the great bulk of mankind, and they have since electrified the hearts of men and women around the globe. We take for granted “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but for those who do not possesses these commodities, or who have lost them, these few words, coupled with the idea that the truths behind them are “self-evident,” continue to light a flame in the hearts of all who love liberty.

Give our current political antagonisms — the recent declarations by a few that the Constitution is dead should trouble all, left and right, who value freedom — perhaps it behooves us to turn the pages of a few American history books and recollect why “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” should remain at the heart of the American dream.

History, which is as much an art as a science, offers us a great choice of texts in looking at Revolutionary and Early Republic America. In addition to the best-sellers by David McCullough — his John Adams is particularly valuable for its insights into the Founders’ views on liberty — we can turn to a variety of other resources. Readers who lean left may prefer to peruse Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn looks at events through the eyes of the working classes, women, and minorities, an examination flavored lightly by Marxism, while those on the right would doubtless prefer Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, another hefty book which takes a more traditional view of American history while debunking some of its recent interpretations (Ideally, our leftists would open Schweikart while right-tilting readers would take a look at Zinn).

In Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis purports to “serve up the real story behind the myths and fallacies of American history.” He clears up some of these misconceptions, but his smart-aleck attitude and politically correct viewpoints will put off those readers who actually do know something about American history. The “Dummies” and “Idiots” guidebooks — U.S. History For Dummies, for instance, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Founding Fathers — offer the cheeky attitude without the sharply slanted views.

Larry Schweikart, a professor of history at the University of Dayton, has recently issued a book that might enlighten citizens of all political stripes. What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (ISBN 978-1-59523-074-4, $26.95) needs to be read cautiously, for the author, as we may conjecture from the title, attempts to look at the writings of the founders of the Republic and then draw conclusions as to what they might say about our own contemporary woes. The chapters of the book are titled in the form of questions — ”Is The Government Responsible For Protecting The Land And The Environment?” “What Is The Purpose Of War And Should It Be Avoided?” and so on — and Schweikart, of course, tends to reply to these questions from a conservative viewpoint.

What makes the book valuable, however, is not the author’s political beliefs, but what he tells us of the Founders. He gives us their unvarnished views on topics like debt, war, and the limits of government. Here, for example, in discussing whether government should have care of the physical health of its citizens, Schweikart spends several delightful pages entertaining us with the dietary habits of early patriots. John Adams, for example, “pounded down a pitcher of hard cider with every breakfast” while Ben Franklin, who as usual offered good advice, wrote that “if thou are dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign that thou hast exceeded the due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.” In other words, citizens who are expected to work, live, and sometimes fight in an atmosphere of freedom ought to be able to judge for themselves a standard of health.

Winter is coming, and winter evenings are a time for long thoughts. We might all benefit ourselves and our country by turning those thoughts, even briefly, toward the treasures of the past and by remembering that what we will be comes from what we are, and that we are comes from how we perceive what we were.

What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems by Larry Schweikart. Sentinel HC, 2011. 256 pages

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In last week’s The Smoky Mountain News, Gary Carden began his review of Ron Rash’s collection of poems, Waking, by praising the writer’s description of a trout brought home and kept alive in a trough, where “its gills were like filters/that pureness poured into.”

The streams and rivers of Western North Carolina attract anglers like — well, like a well-tied fly attracts a trout. Even casual hikers are accustomed to the sight of a man or woman in waders in the middle of a stream, line out, intent on the dark shadows of the moving waters. In some families, fishing and what Hopkins once called “the tools and tackle” are passed along as heirlooms with the same reverence as that shown to Granny’s Bible, Uncle John’s shotgun, and Aunt Martha’s quilts. Others come to the pleasures of fishing — the solitude, the skills, the thrill of hooking a brown or a bass — later in life. However people find their way to water with a pole in one hand and refreshments in the other, they frequently become as passionate about their avocation as a golfer in a clubhouse on the eighteenth hole.

In Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 978-0-914875-60-4), David Joy offers readers both a paean to fishing and a memoir of his own days on the water. He takes us from the coast of North Carolina, where he fished as a boy with his family (he dedicates his book to his grandmother, who not only helped teach him to fish, but who also gave him a collection of stories from her own days of fishing), to the creeks and rivers of our own mountains.

A fisherman since the age of 4, Joy as a child studied fishing shows on television while other adolescents were watching Saturday morning cartoons. He recounts what a fine teacher his Granny was, showing him, for example, how a fish on the line feels as opposed to the tugging of an ocean wave. He then extends his story into his many forays into the mountains, recounting trips along the Tuckasegee, telling us stories of his catches and near misses, explaining how he learned to tie flies from a friend named Zac, whose “Burke County blood had toughened him into a man.”

Joy, who credits his Granny for first teaching him the fine arts of story-telling and the power of description, does his mentor proud in Growing Gills. Here, for example, he recreates a scene on a coastal beach:

“The winter sun had sunk behind the swaying sprigs of sea oats and disappeared beneath the smoothed dunes. A sleek pane of wet sand, a remnant of receding waves, shone like a sheet of ice in the dying sunlight.”

Joy also lets us feel the emotions of those who put a line into water:

“When I see a trout rise to a fly or turn on a nymph, pleasure builds in my chest nearing explosion. This is when an artist knows to wait: oftentimes I do, but at other times the urge becomes too much, usually resulting in a missed fish.”

Yet Joy does more than wax poetic about fishing in Growing Gills. Here are practical chapters on fly-casting and its difficulties, on scouting the shadows and sunlight of a creek for various fish, on the challenges and rewards of night fishing. Both amateur and veteran anglers may learn some good lessons from Joy’s clear, clean prose on the technical aspects of fishing.

The last half of Growing Gills is somewhat marred by Joy’s Bambification of nature and a concomitant misanthropy. “I was the species that dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate,” he writes. “I wanted out. I wanted to become a fish.” In wanting to become one with nature, he frequently attributes to its creatures human thoughts and feelings. He doesn’t seem to realize that a fish is; it doesn’t read Plato, it doesn’t drink beer and smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t write books about fishing. (His approach here is sometimes baffling. He kisses the fish which he releases, for example, but not the ones he eats, which seems to set an old Native American tradition on its head). Joy’s feelings for fish and for nature in general then led him to a dislike for the human. He yearns to “revert to primitiveness,” to “escape the madness of the mechanized world and become in tune,” and is finally forced “to accept my humanity.” The man who truly wants to be a fish rather a man must leave his listeners wondering whether he understands in full what it means to be a man or a fish.

But these are quibbles, given the intent of Growing Gills. Even those who have never baited a hook will find pleasure here. The delights of Joy’s prose are enhanced by the drawings of Michael Polomik, a talented illustrator whose work here compares favorably to those wonderful drawings once found in certain fine books produced 70 and 80 years ago.

Both Joy and Polomik will launch their book at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept.18, at Blue Ride Book and News in Waynesville. Both the publisher of the book, Cynthia Bright of Bright Mountain Books in Asheville, and a representative of the Waynesville Fly Shop will also appear at this event.

Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey by David Joy. Bright Mountain Books, 2011. 208 pages.

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According to recent polls, Americans are angry. They are angry about the economy, about the role of government in their lives, about the direction their country has taken. They are angry with the president and with the Congress. Some are angry because the government gives too much, others because the government gives too little. Many want the government to “fix” the economy. (This comes from a people who owe enormous personal debt via credit cards and loans, who often refuse work if it doesn’t pay salaries to which they are accustomed, who often pay no income tax themselves, who have lamented the transfer of their manufacturing base overseas while at the same time buying Chinese at Wal-Mart, whose corporations move abroad because of high taxes or remain here because of no taxes, who have forgotten that dependence on government leads not to freedom but to slavery).

We are thoroughly politicized even in our daily lives, followers of ideologies — until recently, a distinctly un-American trait — rather than as citizens bound by a spirit of compromise, a common law, a belief in liberty, and the search for pragmatic solutions.

We have traded horse sense for nonsense.

In Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age (ISBN 978-1-933859-88-0, $29.95), author and editor Gregory Wolfe sets out to show us a different path — or rather, how to return to the path once followed by even our recent ancestors. Put succinctly, and quite badly in comparison to Wolfe’s own stylish prose, Wolfe urges us abandon our ideological battles and return to the “old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty” as the criteria for making our democracy and our personal lives once again working propositions.

In the first two chapters of Beauty Will Save The World, Wolfe builds the foundation for this thesis. He tells us of his own struggles as a young man engaged in the culture wars, of moving from libertarianism to conservativism, and then beyond. His distaste for many who professed conservatism grew as he worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his fellow politicos, despite having pushed forward a president who had promised to shrink government, “jockeyed for positions in the new administration, including jobs in departments those stalwarts had resolutely promised to abolish. My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something close to moral revulsion.”

Unlike others who undergo such a sea-change, Wolfe did not turn to the left for answers. He realized that both camps lacked in some way the keys to life and spirit which he was seeking. Instead, he sought out these keys in the realm of art, culture, philosophy, and faith, and unlocked, it would seem, the doors which could restore for many of us the proper way to live and become fully human in an age political rants and rages. In his chapter titled “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture,” Wolfe gives us the heart of his argument:

“It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture — that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.”

An examination of the works of different writers and artists, and the way in which those works have played into our culture, takes up most of Wolfe’s book. He looks at writers of fiction as famous as Evelyn Waugh and as unduly neglected as Larry Woiwode; he examines in depth the work of various poets, especially that of the Englishman Geoffrey Hill; he analyzes the work of Southerners like Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and Marion Montgomery; he discusses painters like Fred Folsom (his in-depth exploration of Folsom’s “Last Call” is worth the price of the book alone).

In Beauty Will Save The World — this title comes from an enigmatic statement made by Dostovesky which fortunately for us once captured the imagination of Wolfe — the author issues a ringing call to turn from the ideological wars of our day, wars which are ruining both our government and our democracy, and to try and find common ground in our culture, in what can be deemed true and good and beautiful. Wolfe, like a few other observers of the battlefield, has here issued a manifesto that may not only lead to peace among neighbors, but to a deeper realization of what is truly worthy of our attention.

Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age by Gregory Wolfe. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011. 278 pages

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Craig S. Bulkeley’s Hope For The Children Of The Sun: Curing The Sonnenkinder Syndrome Called Contemporary Christian Worship (the book may be ordered at your local bookstore or on-line at www.WorshipPress.com aligns itself well with Wolfe’s musings. Sonnenkinder refers to “children of the sun,” a popular name for the European youth culture between the two World Wars.

In this well-reasoned and well-documented short book, Bulkeley points out how the youth culture of the last 60 years has altered the liturgies and services of so many Protestant denominations. After analyzing the development of the twentieth century youth culture — he makes extensive use of Martin Green’s best-selling Children of the Sun — Bulkeley shows why “it is not surprising that the weak church would welcome the ways of the children into its worship practices beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and embrace them wholeheartedly by the opening of the 21st century.” Bulkeley then argues impressively for the return of maturity to the church and to its worship of God.

Bulkeley, who is an attorney and the pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, brings to this book the clean arguments of a legal mind and the impassioned faith of a minister of God. This combination offers a finely-reasoned, clear read for all interested in this issue.

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“At last I have come into a dreamland.” So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe shortly after her arrival in Paris in June of 1853.

Stowe had gone to Paris for the same reasons Americans still visit the City of Light: a desire for adventure, a taste for art, an escape from the rigors or familiarity of life in the States — in Stowe‘s case, from her sudden unanticipated fame after the publication of Uncle Tom‘s Cabin.

Americans in Paris usually call to mind the cafes frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the seedy hotels of Henry Miller, the soldier-writers like James Jones and William Styron who headed for Paris following the Second World War. Today we think of student hostels, university “study abroad” programs, and a city which millions of Americans have visited in the last 50 years, all of them bringing their own hopes and desires for what they might find there.

Rarely, however, do we think of Paris as an American destination in the 19th century. We are aware of the impression left by Benjamin Franklin on the French, of the role the city played in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Until now, few of us would even have thought that there were Americans living in Paris between the era of the Founding Fathers and the time of the “Lost Generation” of the First World War.

In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (ISBN 978-1-4165-71176-6, $37.50), best-selling historian and biographer David McCullough corrects this perception by giving us a fascinating account of the lives of Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James: these and many other Americans visited Paris and felt, to varying degrees, its influence in their lives.

In The Greater Journey, McCullough examines both this influence and the way in which Americans interacted with one another in so strange and different a place. In his account of Morse and Cooper, for example, we are given not only insights into the world of art at this time — for years Morse worked slavishly to become a painter before helping bring the telegraph to the world — but McCullough also shows us the strong friendship between these two men. Cooper came to Paris a famous writer, while Morse was a struggling painter, yet for their time in the city they became the best of friends. Cooper became intrigued by his friend’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre,” an enormous work featuring a gallery filled with paintings and Cooper himself, and would visit Morse daily at his work to offer encouragement. Along with this account of the two men McCullough gives us their biographies in miniature, allowing us to see them more completely both as Americans and as travelers.

Here are dozens of other portraits. We learn about the importance of Paris to the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; we discover Mary Putnam and her determination to pursue medical studies in spite of many obstacles; we watch George Caitlin, the painter of the Plains Indians, and the tribal members who came under his auspices to the city and were admired by King Louis-Philippe; we gain access to the studio of Mary Cassatt, one of the great American Impressionists of this era.

In addition to telling us a relatively unknown story of Americans overseas, McCullough also gives a fine account of Paris itself during these years: the revolutions in art and politics, the plagues, the renovation of the city, the war against the Germans in 1870, the awful siege that followed.

We learn more than a little about French politics and painting, Parisian cuisine (which included the eating of rats during the great siege), the medical and technological advances of the era, literature and poetry. We see how Americans often carried home what they had learned from the French and made it a part of their own work.

This 500-page book also includes many photographs of these Americans abroad and examples of their artwork. Readers will find these invaluable in terms of following McCullough’s discussion of them.

For John Singer Sargent, for example, we not only have examples here of his portraiture, but we have sketches of Sargent by a fellow art student, a photograph of the artist in his studio working on one of his most notorious works, “Madame X”, the work itself, and his action painting, “El Jaleo.”

Readers will find themselves time and again turning from the text to these pictures, grateful that McCullough and his publisher saw fit to include them as an important part of the story.

David McCullough, who has authored such fine histories as 1776 and The Great Bridge, and whose biographies — Truman, Mornings on Horseback, John Adams — have done so much to arouse the interest of Americans in their past, has again struck gold.

The Greater Journey offers us a wonderful opportunity to visit a hidden part of the American past and to come away from that visit feeling as if we have gained a treasure of information.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 576 pages.

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The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre. Crown, 2008. 320 pages.

For the last 30 years, many teachers and parents have understood that a disconnect exists between schools and adolescent males. Male academic performance on the elementary and secondary levels has eroded. Reading levels among boys have fallen sharply in the last 30 years. Fewer young men are going off to college each fall — in 2005, less than 43 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in American colleges and universities were men.

In The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (Crown Publishers, ISBN 978-0-307-38128-6, $24.95), Peg Tyre, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former writer for Newsweek specializing in education and social issues, takes a long, clear look at the way in which our schools educate boys in this country and why that system is failing, and then presents some clear, intriguing solutions to these problems.

In her introduction, Tyre issues several caveats. She warns people that her book isn’t designed to lay blame at anyone’s doorstep for the problems with boys, that the problems are “too broad and too serious to point an accusatory finger at teachers, schools, trends in parenting, feminism, or those old favorite whipping boys ‘the media’ and ‘society.’” Here she also notes that we should distrust “easy and obvious solutions,” that “there’s a big gap between what we think will help boys and what has proven to be effective.”

In “Preschool Blues,” Tyre presents a litany of reasons why boys and formal education all too often knock heads. Childhood has changed drastically in the last 50 years. With both parents often working a full-time job — in the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school-age children stayed at home — the old days of free play for children under 6 years old have vanished. Boys who once entered the discipline of a classroom at age 6 or even 7 now toddle off to day-care centers at age 2 and 3.

Parents have changed, too, as Tyre shows us so well. A parent in the 1950s or 1960s “didn’t pay too much attention to kids’ play. Parents — usually mothers — were responsible for feeding children, clothing them, giving them a bath, taking them to church, and providing them with a basic education. No one spent a lot of time fretting about a child’s cognitive development.” Today parents worry incessantly about their children’s mental growth, consequently pushing children into all sorts of activities at an early age. Tyre tell us that:

“In middle-class neighborhoods, where parents pushing Bugaboo strollers are already projecting their offspring’s SAT scores, preschool administrators use a different calculus. They know that many boys — and some girls — are not ready for the kinds of early academic programs they now embed in their curricula. Anxious, competitive parents, however, make it clear that they want these programs. School administrators know their enrollment rates and financial futures are contingent on keeping those parents happy.”

In revealing certain disadvantages for boys given over to these academic preschools, Tyre quotes Rebecca Marcon’s study, Early Childhood Research and Practices, which makes apparent the fact that boys sent to academic preschools often fell behind those who attended preschools stressing play and movement.

As she leads us up the academic ladder, Tyre points out other problems with our system in terms of teaching boys. The current stress on testing and on cramming academic courses into each school day has caused many schools to abandon recess, despite mountains of evidence that children in elementary school need to shout, run, play, and simply visit (Many adults, if they think about their own elementary school days, may find themselves remembering far more incidents and conversations from their 30 minutes of daily recess than from five hours spent in classes).

A scarcity of male teachers, Tyre tells us, also effects the attitude of boys in school. Too often boys come to regard school and reading as feminine activities, in part because of the preponderance of female teachers. Many parents have seen their sons come alive academically under the tutelage of a male in the classroom. Tyre points out that the final objective should not be to simply hire more male teachers, but to hire better teachers, male and female (Although Tyre doesn’t dwell on the point, some critics of our educational system have also pointed out that we need teachers trained in their subject — biology, history, literature — rather than as educators).

Many boys don’t like to read. Blamed for this failure nowadays are television, computers, and electronic games. As Tyre demonstrates, however, a good part of the fault lies with what boys are forced to read by many schools. “It’s an awkward moment,” Tyre suggests, “when a teacher suggests Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her little male student opts instead for The Day My Butt Went Psycho.” She also cites a 2001 Canadian study which found that “Mormon families in Salt Lake City and lesbian couples in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are equally likely to produce a Captain Underpants fan.”

In one of Tyre’s more telling examples of how boys and education are so often misfits, she quotes Vivian Paley, a renowned kindergarten teacher and winner of a MacArthur Award. Here Paley is demonstrating how differently boys and girls tell stories.

“Here’s the girls’ story: ’Once there were four kittens and they found a pretty bunny. Then they went to buy the bunny some food and they fed the baby bunny and then they went on a picnic.’

“Here’s the boys’ story: ’We sneaked up on a house. Then we put the good guys in jail. Then we killed some of the good guys. Then the four bad guys got some money and some jewels.”

The Trouble With Boys should be read by parents with sons and by teachers who teach those sons. By her observations and acute suggestions, Tyre has performed for us all an invaluable service in understanding boys today.

And in terms of learning, we might all, in these foreboding times, heed T.H. White’s advice in The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” said Merlyn, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lay awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never by tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary in fencing. After that you can start on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. Random House, 2008. 272 pages.

One of the great delights in browsing library shelves or bookstores is to encounter a totally unfamiliar book which seems to promise, from the first touch of the fingertips on the cover, unexpected pleasures. Among women there is the old saying “You have to kiss a thousand frogs to find a prince.” Among bibliophiles the same statistic seems to apply: You have to pull a thousand dogs from the shelf to find one that barks, wags its tail, and runs to meet you.

Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day (Random House, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-4000-6471-7) is just such a dog of a book.

Such a description may sound insulting, but we can be sure that Russell would appreciate this comparison, for one of the characters in her novel — a main character, I might add — is Rosie, an intrepid dachshund who accompanies her mistress, Agnes Skanklin, on a series of grand adventures in the Middle East nearly a century ago.

Agnes is a 40-year-old unmarried schoolteacher from Ohio whose family has been wiped out by the Great War and the influenza epidemic of 1918 (Smoky Mountain News readers may be interested to know that on a hill above the campground in Sunburst is a small cemetery with the graves of children who apparently died during this epidemic). Tired of her life, filled with ennui, Agnes decides to set out on some adventures. In one of the books more humorous scenes, she allows herself to be refashioned by Mildred, a shop girl at Halle’s Department Store in Cleveland. With her new wardrobe and flapper haircut, Agnes then sets out to tour the Middle East, where her deceased sister and brother-in-law had worked before the Great War as missionaries and teachers.

Agnes arrives in Cairo just as the Peace Conference of 1918 has commenced. Here she meets such luminaries as Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Lady Gertrude Bell. Russell paints these characters with vivid colors, doing particular justice to Lawrence and Bell. She also shows us how the twentieth century evolved from decisions made at the various conferences held after World War I. In the Middle East, for example, the importance of oil brought great political pressures to bear on the region, pressures which Russell delineates for us through the conversations of Agnes with British luminaries and the fictitious German Jewish spy, Karl Weilbacher, with whom Agnes falls in love.

In addition to setting painlessly a background to today’s Middle East conflicts, Dreamers of the Day also explores other areas of our history. Russell accurately describes Woodrow Wilson’s wartime presidency as a sort of fascistic dictatorship. Later, the author writes accurately and well about the influenza epidemic of 1918, when more people around the world died of the flu than died on the battlefields of World War I. Through Agnes’s eyes, we realize the devastation of such an epidemic.

In addition to its historical depictions, Dreamers of the Day also gives us a woman with whom some 21st century women might identify. Agnes works first as a teacher, then inherits some money after the deaths of her relatives. She lives through the twenties on this sum, but then loses her small fortune to speculation and poor investments during the early years of the Depression. In mid-life she experiences a catharsis allowing her to find within herself a sense of adventure, even a sense of her own worth. She remodels herself from hairstyle to dresses, from outlook on the world to her lust for personal freedom, and makes of that renovation a nice job. She has spiritual battles with her deceased mother; she finds pain in love; she must learn to live great stretches of her life alone. She is vulnerable to pain — she grieves the passing of her family, for example, though without falling into bathos over that passing — and yet she is possessed of that midwestern spine which has carried many another Agnes through the tilt and whirl of life.

At the end of Dreamers of the Day, Agnes speaks to her readers from beyond the grave. Deceased, her soul has taken up residence again in Egypt, the land where she had so many adventures. Here she speaks with the likes of Ptolemy, Saint Francis, George McClellan (who intensely studied the Middle East, including Egypt, after the Civil War), and Napoleon. History and warfare, and the nature of humanity, are topics for their discussions. Most people, the dead Agnes concludes, “welcome war. Rare and precious as it is, peace seems boring and banal by comparison ... As war approaches, Mr. James wrote, nations experience a vague, religious exultation.”

Regarding many of the commitments made by the United States to the Middle East in the twenty-first century, Agnes tells us that “Naturally, people are resentful of ham-handed efforts to run their affairs for them, especially when they can plainly see a benefactor’s ulterior motives. And even when you mean well? Sometimes things are just none of your business.”

Dreamers of the Day is not a book for every reader. It’s not an action or suspense novel, though both occur. It’s not a novel about dogs and their owners, though Rosie the dachshund often takes center stage. Even the romance at the heart of the novel takes a passenger seat next to the book’s depiction of its driver, Agnes. In Dreamers of the Day Mary Doria Russell creates a delightful character, Agnes Shanklin, who is able to tell us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.

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The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 272 pages.

Biography affords the reader a rare chance to walk in another’s shoes, to explore unknown places ranging from the Amazon rainforest to the great uncharted territories of the human heart, to see through the eyes of a stranger, and perhaps, if the reader is lucky and the biographer up to the task, to gain some insight into one’s own triumphs and failures. We read these stories of other human beings not only to look through a window into their hearts and minds, but to look into the mirror of their lives while seeking our own reflection.

Rick Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-4040-7, $24) speaks to us as both biography and autobiography. In this marvelous memoir, a conclusion to the stories told by Bragg about his family in All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man, Bragg digs deep into his father’s past while at the same time narrating his relationship with “the boy”, his 10-year-old stepson.

Bragg’s father, Charles, grew up hard in rural Alabama, a son and brother in a violent, hard-drinking family.

“He talked country but dressed for town, as all the boys from the mill village did back then, a hybrid hillbilly with silver dimes flashing in his black penny loafer shoes. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and toted a thin, yellow-handled knife in his left hip pocket, so he could get at it, quick .... He raised fighting dogs, bet on chickens and loved vanilla ice cream, and I guess he was a scoundrel before he knew what a scoundrel was.”

Bragg leads us back into his own father’s past, into a hardscrabble world of mill workers, unlettered preachers, and moonshiners. In his effort to understand Charles Bragg’s failures as a father — the drinking, the indifference, the abandonment — Bragg closely examines his father’s boyhood, his service in Korea where he supposedly killed a man barehanded, an adult life seemingly wasted in irresponsible acts and brushes with the law.

At stake for Rick Bragg in this investigation is his own relationship as a stepfather to the son of a woman he loves. In order to find his place with this boy, Bragg realizes that he must come to terms with his own past, his own anguished boyhood:

“I didn’t care if he rode bulls or danced ballet, and that’s the truth. But what made me crazy was the idea that he was the kind of boy I used to despise, the kind who looked down his nose on the boy I was .... That was what needled me. My mother cleaned their houses, cooked for them, diapered them. I would not have a boy like that.”

Through his narration in The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg slowly becomes aware — and makes us aware in the process — of his love both for his father and for the boy. In his odyssey toward understanding both his past and his present, Bragg comes to understand himself as well. He sees how ill-equipped his own father has left him in terms of fatherhood, and grows past that hard-won knowledge to love and care for the boy who has come into his life.

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In The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War (New York: Random House, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-6634-6), David Lebedoff introduces us to two writers who seem at first glance as completely different as possible from each other.

Both men were products of the English public school system, and both struggled in their own ways with the English class system, but there the similarities seem to end. Waugh attended Oxford, unsuccessfully taught school, began writing, and became the chronicler in the 1920s of “The Bright Young Things.” Through his writing and through his second marriage, Waugh sought to leave his middle-class roots.

Before becoming George Orwell, Eric Blair, the son of a civil servant, attended Eton, entered the Indian Imperial Police, served in Burma, and spent a number of years in poverty, studying the lives of the poor and eventually serving in the Spanish conflict, where he became forever a foe of totalitarianism.

Yet the two men shared passions which did indeed make them comrades of a sort. Although they only met once — Orwell was dying then, and there is no record of what was said in this extraordinary meeting of two of the finest writers of the 20th century — both men by then despised the corruption of the English language and the horrible consequences of that corruption.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pointed out that words misused can smother thought and intention; our reaction to a reported “pacification” is quite different than to “killing the people in the village.” In both Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell went to great pains to show how the state and its supporting class will go to great lengths to control language and history, erasing what they wish from historical texts and feeding the citizenry slogans designed to choke off thinking.

Waugh, too, reacted to the cant of our time through his writing. His novels are less polemical than Orwell’s work, but are, as Lebedoff so insightfully points out, more acerbic in their mordent wit. “Every joke is a small revolution,” Orwell once wrote, and Waugh wrote his black comedies as revolts against the modern age, an age which he, like Orwell, detested.

Lebedoff’s conclusion to his “Prologue” in The Same Man may serve as our conclusion here, a shot across the bow of our own wallowing ship of state in these trying times. Of Orwell and Waugh he writes that:

“They saw in modern life a terrible enemy. It was not only totalitarianism that they loathed but virtually everything that would come even if totalitarianism was defeated. They saw an end to common sense and common purpose. They saw the futility of life without roots or faith. They saw the emptiness of an existence whose only point was material consumption. And in the great work of their lives, which was to warn us of what was to come, they came to be, improbably enough, in many ways the same man.”

Comment

Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (ISBN 978-0-670-02178-9, $28.95) tells the story of two half-sisters, Cassie, a translator for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, and Peck, an often-unemployed actress who loves vintage clothing, gossip, and parties. When their cherished Aunt Lydia dies, she leaves to the Moriarty sisters co-ownership of Fool’s House, the ramshackle home located in Long Island’s Hamptons, with instructions that they are to sell the house and split the proceeds.

In addition to spending a good bit of time wrangling over whether to follow through on these instructions — both young women entertain wonderful memories of the house and its magical place in their lives — Cassie and Peck also enter into a series of adventures together. Though Cassie is the narrator of the novel, it is Peck, the more vivacious of the two, who leads their excursions into literature, love, and art. Peck drags Cassie off to her beloved parties, revitalizes her in the morning with a pick-me-up, and introduces her to such ideas as the “dressing drink,” which is of course the drink taken while dressing for a party. After Peck is convinced that her old flame, Miles Noble, has invited her to a Gatsby party to win her back — he introduced her to Fitzgerald’s book — she spends most of the novel pursuing him while encouraging Cassie in her own love life. Other characters and situations intrude: the gay neighbor who watches over the girls with an avuncular eye; the eccentric houseguest; the theft of a painting, possibly the work of Jackson Pollock; the collection of eccentrics who mingle at the summer’s parties.

The Summer We Read Gatsby satisfies on every level. The plot is intriguing, holding our attention to the last pages, which offer several surprises. The characters are all finely drawn, particularly those of Cassie and Peck. Ganek makes both young women come alive on the page — Cassie as shy, a little aloof, reserved, and Peck as a sort of amiable “bad girl” who entertains the reader on every page on which she appears (the last four pages, in which Peck becomes the novel‘s narrator, will have the reader laughing aloud). Here, for example, is Peck on men and the great love of her life, Miles Noble:

“Men were always falling in love with Peck, or so she would tell me. And she did have a regal air that seemed to bring out the passion in even the mousiest littler creatures. But inevitably she’d come with several reasons to be disappointed. A passion for cats, for example. Or ordering a salad for dinner. Or the wrong sorts of shoes. “Tasseled loafers,” she would whisper into the phone, as if such a thing were so awful it couldn’t be voiced too loudly. It explained everything. Afterward, she’d always add, “Well, he was no Miles Noble.”

From the above we can discern the other strengths of Ganek’s writing and storytelling. In Cassie, she offers a warm voice that draws the reader into the story. Cassie, like nearly all good first-person narrators, puts us on her side, invites us rather than forces us to see life as she does. We also see Ganek’s ability to create a quick character study. For example, we leave this paragraph with a sizable image of Peck in mind; we can see her on the phone as she whispers to her caller.

Most importantly, there is a gaiety and insouciance that runs through Danielle Ganek’s book thatoften seems sadly absent from much fiction these days. Reading The Summer We Read Gatsby is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade during the recent heat wave — or better still, as one of Peck’s “dressing drinks.” With style, intelligence, and humor, Ganek explores the bonds of sisterhood, the debts we owe to the dead, the place of art and literature in our lives, the importance of friendship and the possibilities of love.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is a diamond of a book: sharply cut, glittering, lovely. Ganek is the author of another novel, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, and is at work on a third novel.

•••

If The Summer We Read Gatsby is like a tall cool drink, Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (ISBN 978-0-307-37794-4, $27.95) is like a dash — for some people, better make that a bucketful — of cold water. Author of books like The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby here turns her gimlet eye on aging and on our response to it and to dying. She contrasts traditional attitudes toward aging and death to those of our own time, when we see all around us myths and fairy tales about how long we may live and how we may through different treatments defy the ravages of age. She reveals the various hucksters feeding off those who are approaching old age: the health food and vitamin gurus, the advocates of “staying young”, those who regard death as a “disease.“ She takes to task the baby-boomer obsession with the “youth culture” and offers at the end of the book the idea that growing old gracefully may mean simply allowing oneself to grow old.  

Though readers may argue with certain points of Never Say Die — Jacoby’s take on attitudes toward aging, for example, gets more than a little silly — and though some of us probably don’t need to read this book (I have only to glance in the mirror to certify that I am growing old), this book is nonetheless a powerful reminder that most of us will grow old, will feel old, will look old, and will eventually die. To those who deal with the undertaker and the grave about as well as the Victorians dealt with sex, Never Say Die offers a powerful reminder of the inevitability of death.

Comment

“Look left and right, and be careful.” Your mother probably said those words to you when you were learning to cross the street. Her same admonition might apply to today’s political arena.

In one of the summer’s best-sellers, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1, $28.99), author Ann Coulter argues, as the book’s flyleaf puts it, that “liberals exhibit all the psychological characteristics of a mob — practicing groupthink, slavishly following intellectual fashions, and periodically bursting into violence.”

Often justly accused of inflammatory writing — she is not only despised by liberals, but by many mainstream Republic pundits and politicians as well, who fear being tainted by what they regard as her extremism — Coulter here follows the pattern set in her other books, mixing broad statements (“Liberals speak with the fatuous lunacy of people in the old Soviet Union, passing out awards to one another for imaginary heroism …”), statistics, and somewhat generalized history. Whether on the left or right, most political commentators these days use the same formula, mixing fact and speculation to support their own presuppositions.

Evidence of Coulter’s own prejudices — ”Liberals bad, conservatives good” — begins with the title, Demonic, and continues throughout the book. For this reason, liberals will not read the book, and conservatives will come to it agreeing ahead of time with its main points, consuming it as intellectual comfort food.

Though touted by some conservative reviewers as Coulter’s best book, Demonic will not win any awards for its literary attributes. Coulter is a better columnist than a writer of books, a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, and this quality shows in the book. Though she does write in a lively manner, she repeats her arguments and examples, and often paints her case with too broad a brush. Her training as an attorney shows here, as it does in her other writing, in that she builds a case for her client — in this instance, conservatives — while marshalling selected facts against her liberal opponents.

Yet Demonic does bring up two points which political and cultural liberals might ponder with some gain. The first has to do with political rhetoric and violence in America. Coulter makes a convincing case that much of the political violence in the last 40 years has come from the left rather than the right of the political spectrum.

We like to think of “right-wing extremists” plotting assassinations and toting guns, but Coulter draws our attention to the fact that assassinations and mob violence, ranging from shouting down speakers on campus to breaking up political rallies, are much more a legacy of the left. One startling example which she uses comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded by most conservatives as extremely left-wing, which concluded that “Extremists within the environmental and animals rights movements have committed literally thousands of violent criminal acts in recent decades — arguably more than those from any other radical sector, left or right.”

Both liberals and conservatives might also gain from reading Coulter on revolution and mobs. We Americans are fond of the word revolution — we just celebrated our own break from Britain and a king, and like to speak of a revolution in everything from computers to the foods we eat. Yet Coulter’s two-chapter look at the French Revolution reminds all of us, particularly those who read little history, of the cost in blood of a revolution. Here Coulter writes vividly of the executions, of the bloodthirsty pomposity of the revolutionaries, of the evil that humans may do in a good cause (In one case cited by Coulter, a woman arrested in a case of mistaken identity was proven innocent, but was executed “because she was there anyway.”) Revolutions nearly always mean the blood-letting of innocent people and consequences unforeseen, two circumstances that should always temper the welcome our government and our media give to such events as “the Arab Spring.”

•••

In Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli (ISBN 978-0-557-68680-3), Bill Branyon has issued a call to liberals to become “free-thinkers” rather than doctrinaire politicos and to live with more joy in their lives.  

The spirit behind Branyon’s book is enthusiastic and joyful. He is clearly a man who enjoys laughter, and his sense of humor carries onto the pages of Liberating Liberals. The book’s chief asset is it exhortation to liberals embrace this sense of joy and spontaneity. Branyon writes:

“Our efforts will be greatly enhanced by simply becoming more loyal to our freethinking ideals, by becoming more comfortable and happy with the current facts of political and personal life, and by insulating our imaginations and goals against the constant assaults of conservatives.”

Liberating Liberals is weak in its organization, its use of language and syntax, and in explaining the very thing which it espouses — “free thinking.” In one part of the book, Branyon attacks grammar rules as a residue of “the 18th century aristocrat” and goes on to state that grammar should not be taught until late in high school. “And even then,” he adds, “if it seems to inhibit someone’s desire to write, back off.” Liberating Liberals itself, which would have benefited from editing and clearer thinking, argues against Branyon’s case here.

This same problem — unclear usage coupled with loose thinking — runs throughout the book. Branyon calls for a 20-hour work week so that human beings may become more humane, but never tells us how we are to reach that state. (He does cite Denmark as an example, extolling its vacations and cradle-to-grave socialism, but fails to mention that European economies are falling apart). He mingles Biblical quotations with lyrics from Joni Mitchell and observations from Nietzsche, but these rarely hang together in an argument for any point.

Finally, Liberating Liberals needed to clearly define certain terms: “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly free thinker (I have yet to meet one. If indeed “free-thinkers” ever existed, I suspect they have long gone the way of raphus cucullatus). Is a Marxist a liberal? Are liberals free-thinkers? Should we really scoff at men like Franklin and Jefferson because they used “pen and quill while we use word processors and the internet?”

“As prisoners of their own fundamentalism,” Branyon writes, “conservatives are extremely learning disabled.” If that is true, and if the freethinking view as presented in Liberating Liberals is the alternative, then we may all want to go to some other school for our education.

Comment

Paris in the 1920s attracted multitudes of American writers and artists. Drawn to France by a sense of adventure, by a strong dollar, by French culture, and not least, by the fact that in France the wine and spirits flowed legally and copiously while America underwent its experiment with Prohibition, writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, and the young and unknown Thomas Wolfe all came to Paris in that decade. The city left a lasting mark on them, and they repaid the favor by writing of their romance with the City of Lights. “Paris was always worth it and you received return from whatever you brought to it,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, his account of his years there. “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Woody Allen’s newest movie, “Midnight In Paris,” which is a love-song to Paris both as it is now and as it was when those Americans first discovered it, offers viewers a pleasurable take on American literature and writing. In the film, which was both written and directed by Allen, a modern-day screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) has gone with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a visit to Paris. Gil, who idealizes the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, dislikes his own work and wants to finish his novel, a book in which he has little faith. Fearful that Gil may give up his lucrative position in the film industry for an impossible dream, Inez belittles his attempts at higher literature and has nothing but derision for his nostalgia.

One evening Gil becomes lost in the city while making his way back to his hotel. As the clock strikes midnight, some party-goers in an antique Peugeot pulls alongside him and invite him to come with them. As the car whisks Gil though the streets, he quickly discovers that he has somehow traveled in time back to the Roaring Twenties. He meets Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), then Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who agrees to read his manuscript. Night after night, Gil returns to this lost era, meeting artists and writers ranging from T. S. Eliot to Pablo Picasso, from Man Ray to Salvador Dali, and eventually falls in love with Adriana (Marian Cotillard), Picasso’s mistress. Though Allen takes liberties with some of the characters and their lives — Hemingway, for example, did not go to Africa for a safari while living as a young man in Paris — the sheer fun and pleasure offered to lovers of literature by this movie should overcome objections by purists to such insertions.

To say more about the plot of this delightful film would spoil the ending. What can be added, however, is that “Midnight In Paris” is not only a pleasure to watch — the movie opens with a mélange of shots of modern-day Paris so beautiful and moving that the viewer may leave the theater ready to take the next flight to France — but also offers a series of meditations on art and on time. We hear from Hemingway and Stein about writing and what makes it “true and good,” as Hemingway might say; we receive quick insights into how artists like Dali and Picasso thought; and finally, we see in Gil the struggle between the philistine and the artist.

Allen also cleverly makes an important statement about the nature of time, the idea of a golden age, and the present. In the movie, Gil wants to go back to the Paris of the 1920s. Adrianna in turn fantasizes about life in La Belle Époque, the 1890s, and men like Degas and Gauguin, whom we encounter briefly, think that the Renaissance was the best time for being an artist. By the end of the movie we come to see through Gil’s eyes the dangers of such nostalgia. We begin to understand, as he does, that the age in which we live has its own compensations, its own responsibilities, its own joys and sorrows, and that both the human being and the artist must live in their own time rather than pine for the past. Though we may not realize it until the movie is over, this message is embedded in the very beginning of the movie, with those lovely scenes from today’s Paris.

•••

In Listen (ISBN 978-1-4143-2433-3, 2010, $12.99), Christian novelist Rene Gutteridge tells the story of Marlo, a town where an anonymous person suddenly begins recording intimate conversations and transcribing them onto the Internet. Though this thief of secrets posts these conversations without identifying those involved, the townspeople and those involved in their lives easily recognize their own words. These conversations soon cause an uproarious falling-out among neighbors and family members. Some incidents turn violent, and the police become involved, trying to track down the person responsible for these episodes as well as to repair the damage done by the gossip and innuendo posted online.

Gutterridge will win no awards for style or finesse in Listen — like many other books published in the Christian genre, her workaday prose is flat and unexciting — but she is a fine storyteller who raises some interesting questions: How responsible are we for the words we speak? What effect do words have on those around us? How much weight should we give to words spoken in anger or passion?

For the past several years we have seen the consequences of words and images on certain people and events. This summer alone has given us the emails of Sarah Palin, which were largely innocuous, and the crotch shots of Congressman Weiner, which revealed not only his nether regions but also a near-unbelievable stupidity. Listen is a well-timed reminder that loose speech — and in Weiner’s case, loose drawers — often has unforeseen consequences.

Listen by Rene Gutteridge. Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. 432 pages.

Comment

Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June and so falls this year on June 19, sports a peculiar history. Although first proposed as a holiday in 1908 by Grace Clayton of West Virginia, and pushed later by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash., with the help of the YMCA, the YWCA, and various churches, the idea was greeted with derision by many. For years it was the object of satire, in large part because people feared its commercialization along the lines of Mother’s Day. Even the punctuation of the designated day — should it be Fathers’ Day or Father’s Day? — was an object of some debate. Not until 1972 did President Richard Nixon sign the bill that officially declared Father’s Day a national holiday.

Father’s Day also offers more of a dilemma to children than its maternal counterpart. Though we may have difficulty choosing a gift for mom, the bare essentials seem to include at least flowers and a meal which she doesn’t have to prepare herself. With dads the issue is more complicated. Flowers seem a trifle goofy, even by our loose conventions, and a special meal loses some of its meaning unless Dad is the household chef. Neckties, once the fallback gift for males on such occasions, are too much of a cliché and too little worn to be an option. So what’s left to progeny wishing to honor fatherhood?

Buy books, of course.

The easiest way to give Dad something to read is by means of a gift certificate. This option allows him the pleasures of shopping a bookstore and selecting a book which he will read. If a gift certificate seems a little chilly, however, there are many books that will appeal to Dad. Nearly all bookshops set up special displays for fathers this time of year, offering buyers a wide selection of purchases designed to offer Dad some diversion.

One of the stranger books found on one of these displays this year was Sh*t My Dad Says (ISBN 978-0-06-199270-4, $15.99). Here Justin Halpern gives us the profane paternal adages of his own father that make Pat Conroy’s Great Santini look like a sixth-grade altar boy. On Internet service, for example, Mr. Halpern comments: “I don’t want it … I understand what it does … Yes, I do. And I don’t give a sh*t if all your friends have it. All of your friends have dopey f*cking haircuts, too, but you don’t see me running to my barber.” On Bring-Your-Dad-To-School Day: “Who are all these f*cking parents who can take a day off? If I’m taking a day off, I ain’t gonna spend it sitting at some tiny desk with a bunch of eleven-year-olds.” On LEGOs: “Listen, I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but that thing you built there, it looks like a pile of sh*t.” On hair: “Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started f*cking.”

Sh*t My Dad Says is humorous when first perused, but after 10 or 15 pages of this short book some readers may find themselves not only appalled by the profanity and sarcasm of Mr. Helpern, but thankful that they themselves never had to suffer such a father. Mr. Halpern eventually comes across here as a real jerk, emotionally stunted, a man little and bitter in spirit whose profanity and bile make him even smaller than he already is.

Readers looking for a better gift for Father’s Day might take a look at Washington: A Life (ISBN 978-1-59420-256-7, $40). Biographer Ron Chernow, author of books about the Morgan family, Alexander Hamilton, and the senior Rockefeller, gives us a fine life of the father of our country. Whether writing about Washington’s New Jersey campaign or about his problems establishing some of the parameters of the newly-created office of president, Chernow delivers the man in crisp, lively prose. His feeling for the era of Washington and the manner in which he introduces the scores of other historical figures who surround the man easily make this one of the more readable and at the same time more accurate biographies of the past year.

Like our own age, Washington’s time boiled with political scandal and struggles over rights and powers, yet Washington himself “consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” He differed in many ways from many of the Founding Fathers: he had begun working as a teenager, deprived of the classical education given men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; he was a surveyor and planter rather than an attorney; he had placed himself again and again in the path of bullets and death; he truly disliked political intrigue and jockeying for political position. Critical of slavery, but caught up in an economic system which depended on such exploitation for its wealth, he ordered his slaves to be freed after his death.

Near the end of his study of Washington, Chernow shares with us one great secret of Washington’s effectiveness as a leader:

“George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest … History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country.”


Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. It Books, 2010. 176 pages

Comment

Nearly 50 years have passed the death of C.S. Lewis — he died of illness in 1963 on the same November day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated — yet Lewis remains a household name and a best-selling author. Although he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, where he was a respected medieval and Renaissance scholar, he is today best known for his novels and his tomes on Christian apologetics. The release of different films based on the Chronicles of Narnia have only enlarged his audience for these stories, his space trilogy continues to attract readers, and many Christians, new and old alike, are familiar with his books on faith: The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and others.

Often, however, even readers who are reasonably well-acquainted with the work of Lewis express surprise when asked about his novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Though this book, which some critics regard as the best of Lewis’ novels, lends itself to rereading, deep discussion, and numerous interpretations, many Lewis fans have never read Till We Have Faces, and many more have never heard of it.

This is regrettable, for these readers are missing a deep, rich mine of a book, a dark story scintillating with bright gems: strong characters, bold themes, a universal story. Till We Have Faces recreates the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which, as Lewis writes in a note at the end of the book, he took from Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius Pltaonicus. In the original myth as recounted by Apuleius — and there are several variations — Psyche is the mortal daughter of a powerful king. She is the most beautiful maiden in all the land. Eventually, Venus becomes jealous of Psyche and directs her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche and takes her to his bridal chamber. Psyche, however, at the urging of her sisters, disobeys Cupid’s command not to look on him (he visits her only in the night), is apprehended, and must then wander the earth looking for her lover. After many trials, she and Cupid are finally reunited.

This myth gives readers much to ponder. Cupid is Eros, the god of sexual desire, and Psyche means soul in Greek (It also means butterfly, of which Thomas Bullfinch once wrote that “there is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain … to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring.”)

In this ancient myth we see the workings of Eros on love, and yet we sympathize with Psyche as well as she reveals the sufferings which the soul must undergo to attain the deepest and fullest measure of love. The child eventually produced by the union of Cupid and Psyche is strikingly named Pleasure — not the term as we generally understand it, but pleasure meant more in the sense of pleasing. The offspring of Eros and Soul, in other words, is pleasing, right, good.

In Till We Have Faces, Lewis gives us the same general tale as Apuleius, but he deepens the characters, adds more detail to the plot, and more fully develops his own theme. In Lewis’ version, Orual, Psyche’s older sister, tells the tale of her family and the kingdom of Glome, of which her father is the king. Orual is a complicated character, rejected by her father for her ugliness, obsessively in love with her sister, a girl who by the end of the book becomes a cunning queen and a harsh judge of people. Always suffering from the loss of her sister, for which she blames on the gods, Orual has even prepared a brief against these deities for the pain they have brought to the kingdom of Glome, to her sister Psyche, and to herself.

In addition to Psyche, two other characters play important roles in the book and in Orual’s life. The first is her tutor and good friend, the Fox, a Greek slave and an atheistic philosopher who represents rational thinking. The second is Lord Bardia, her chief military commander and close friend, who encourages her in the ways of duty, honor, and justice. Through her own selfishness, Orual eventually destroys the lives of both men, wanting them, as she wanted Psyche, completely for herself and for her own needs, rather than allowing them the small freedoms of life due to them.

By his retelling of this myth, Lewis has given us a very modern story about love, the will, the soul, and the relationship between them. He delves more powerfully than Apuleius into the central theme of the Greek myth, that Cupid, who is Love, is made for Psyche, or the soul, and that their union results in Pleasure, which is the pleasure of a soul infused with love.

Through Orual’s account of her life we also come to understand what happens when we pervert or twist love. We see the many masks of false love we wear, the facades we erect, most often unwittingly, to protect ourselves, the disguises we wear in our self-righteousness to justify our actions. Here Orual becomes our mirror. As she slowly comprehends her terrible flaws — her domination of those around her, her twisted sense of true love, her quarrels with the gods — we readers become aware of our own awful failings and misjudgments, of our own responsibility for so horribly wounding those around us, particularly those whom we profess to love most. We may even come to understand, at some level, the lesson finally learned by Orual: that we cannot meet the gods face to face till we ourselves have faces.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He an be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)      

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace & Company. 324 pages

Comment

Kind hearts, allow me to introduce Police Detective, Harry Hole. Let me warn you in advance, he is an alcoholic who manages to keep his job in the House of Pain (Oslo’s Robbery Division) by cunning and a talent for catching elusive criminals — a fact that pleases his superiors and angers many of his career-minded peers. Harry prefers to work alone and has a reputation for using “unorthodox methods.” Although acquaintances frequently describe him as “tall, sullen, blond ... and ugly.” (He maintains relationships with women that tend to be perverse, passionate and/or downright disturbing.

At the present time, the Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, has completed a half-dozen thrillers that feature Harry Hole. As a result, Nesbo has become the most popular detective fiction writer in Europe. Due to the complexities of publishing (and translating) Norwegian fiction into English, Harry Hole’s following in America has been delayed. The first novels — The Redbreast, The Devil’s Star, The Leopard, The Redeemer and Nemesis — have become astonishingly popular throughout Europe and although they are now available on Amazon, some titles are still difficult to acquire. The advance sales demand for Nesbo’s last two books, Snowman and Phantom, have already made them bestsellers, even though they will not be released in America until May (Snowman) and June (Phantom).

Amid a lot of promotional hysteria that calls Nesbo “the new Steig Larsson” (in this reviewer’s opinion, he is much better than that) and critical essays about the “Norwegian Invasion of crime literature,” it is clear that the Harry Hole novels herald an innovative and appealing development in crime literature. But how are these novels different? Is it Harry’s unique character or Nesbo’s gift for descriptive details?

This review focuses on Nemesis simply because this is the only Harry Hole mystery that this crime fiction fan could find. (The others are on back order.)  Nemesis is third or fourth in the Harry Hole series and as a result, a new reader may feel like he has entered in the middle of a movie. There are references to events that occurred several years ago, including the unsolved murder of Harry’s lover, Ellen Gjelten — a tragedy that is partially responsible for Harry’s dark moods and alcoholism.

There are also a number of recurring regular characters: Inspector Tom Waaler, a sinister police officer who has created a kind of vigilante squad of maverick cops and who hates/fears Harry (Tom may be involved in Ellen’s death), and Rune Avarsson, an envious administrator who bitterly resents Harry’s success in solving crimes.

However, Nemesis easily stands alone since Jo Nesbo possesses a remarkable talent for sustaining suspense while developing an intricate plot filled with obscure facts about forensic medicine, astronomy, psychology, current “pop” music and cooking.

In Nemesis, Harry Hole must solve two murders: the first involves the shooting of a female bank employee, Stine Grette, during a robbery. Harry is perplexed by the fact that the murder appears unnecessary since the surveillance cameras in the bank revealed that the masked robber had acquired the money ...yet he shoots the bank employee anyway.

The second murder is a bit more personal. A former girlfriend of Harry’s, Anna Bethsen (an unstable, failed artist), invites him to dinner. During the meal, he is drugged and dumped outside Anna’s apartment. When he regains consciousness, Harry has no memory of his dinner with Anna. When he returns to Anna’s (locked) apartment, he finds her dead in what appears to be a suicide. Notifying the police with an anonymous call, Harry silently watches as an inept investigation closes, finding the cause of death to be suicide. Although Harry suspects that Anna was murdered, he also realizes if the case is reopened he will be the prime suspect.

Adding to the intricate threads of the plot, Harry finds that the burglary division has recently employed  Beate Lonn, the daughter of a murdered policeman who possesses a rare talent called “fusiform gyrus,” which means that she can recognize and recall the details of every human face she has ever seen. Beate is assigned to work with Harry. (Yes, she may have seen Tom Waaler someplace he should not have been.) In addition, Beate has a condition called “Setesdal Twitch,” which I will refrain from defining since it would definitely spoil the conclusion of Nemesis.

Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that the two murders are connected. As he delves into the history of bank robbing in Oslo, he discovers that the most successful robberies have been carried out by gypsies. In fact, the leader of Oslo’s most efficient bank robbing team, a man called Roskol, continues to plan and execute robberies from prison where he sits  each day playing chess. To complicate matters further, Harry learns that Roskol allowed himself to be convicted for a crime that he did not commit because he is doing “penance.” At this point, Harry begins to ponder the close association between vengeance and love, especially in his own life.

There are far too many tension-ridden episodes in Nemesis to discuss in this review. However, among the most riveting are Harry’s “unofficial” trip to an unpleasant little town in Brazil to find a mysterious gypsy who may (or may not) be Roskol’s brother. Also, shortly after Anna’s death, Harry begins receiving taunting emails from someone who knows all about his dinner with Anna as well as a disconcerting amount of personal information about Harry. A further complication develops when Harry’s arch-enemy, Tom Waaler, develops an interest in Beate and decides to seduce her (while “Purple Rain” plays in the background). At the same time, Waaler devises a “foolproof” plot to destroy Harry. The plot becomes a complex series of boxes within boxes within boxes.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Nemesis, is Nebo’s ability to capture the lives and personalities of his characters through dialogue that blends discussions about suicide  (Albert Camus), American movies (“The Shining”, “BayWatch” (David Hasslehoff), the Horse-head Nebula, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” In fact, the discussions of music, abnormal psychology and a wealth of tantalizing knowledge definitely serve to make this Harry Hole thriller “a thinking man’s (or woman’s) murder mystery.” I guess I’m hooked.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. HarperColllins, 2010. 474 pages.

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So ends Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris. This book contains the best of Hemingway: his prose style, crisp and clear as a glass of fine chardonnay; his reporter’s eye for detail; his talent for dialogue and for character. A Moveable Feast also gives us the worst of Hemingway as a person: his habit of kicking in the face those whom he had passed up on the ladder of success, writers such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his penchant for blaming his own personal follies on the actions of others.

One striking feature of A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s remaining affection of his first wife, Hadley. She shared his life in those early years in Paris, and for the rest of his days Hemingway remained in love with her. After his betrayal of her, he writes that “when I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in  … I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife (ISBN 978-0-345-52130-9, 2011, $25) tells the story of Hemingway’s Paris years from Hadley’s viewpoint. She begins her book with an account of Hadley’s first meeting with Hemingway in 1920, gives us Hadley’s background — she was sickly as a child, became a caretaker for her family, and found in Hemingway a release from her stifling home — and then moves us along with the newly-married Hemingways to Paris and the excitement of those years. Through Hadley’s eyes, we meet writers like Ezra Pound (“Over in the shadowy corner of the studio, Ernest was literally crouched at Pound’s feet while the older man lectured, waving a teapot around as he talked”) and Gertrude Stein (her eyes were “the deepest and most opaque shade of brown, critical and accepting, curious and amused”). Through Hadley, McLain shows us the squalor of the apartment in which they lived when they first came to Paris, gives us the conversations of the artists and writers in the boulevard cafes, and imparts a sense of the magic which Hemingway and others found then in Paris.

McLain also gives us a different view of Hemingway than many of his biographers, nearly all of whom are male. Here we take in Hemingway through a woman’s eyes, and though the book is fictional, we acquire a different image of Papa than that found in the many books written about him. McLain captures the difficulties of being close to Hemingway every day, his mood swings, the intensity he brought to his writing, the demands he placed on his marriage, his growing love for Pauline Pfeiffer, who was wealthier and younger than Hadley, and would eventually take Hemingway away from her. When Hadley finds herself pregnant, Hemingway responds like a truculent child, and though he eventually becomes as good a father in the book as he was in real life, McLain’s Hadley lets us understand how deeply his initial negative reaction to her pregnancy hurt their marriage and her love for him.

The Paris Wife has its weaknesses. Though McLain ably captures the Paris of the twenties, and gives us fine sketches of people like Pound and Fitzgerald, she somehow fails to give us an adequate portrait of Hadley herself. Though she herself tells us the story, Hadley as narrator seems thinly drawn somehow, two-dimensional, all surface and no depth. By the end of the book, we are left wondering what Hemingway saw in this flighty, shallow woman. Here the incident of Hemingway’s stolen manuscripts might serve as an example. On a train from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway, Hadley had stolen from her a valise containing most of Hemingway’s stories. This incident was a terrible catastrophe for the real-life Hemingway and his wife: there were no copies, and the loss was temporarily devastating to the young couple. Yet in The Paris Wife, the incident is covered in four pages, and we have little sense that Hadley feels much remorse over the stolen manuscripts. While Hemingway goes back to Paris to search their apartment for the stories, as he did in real life, the Hadley of The Paris Wife seems under whelmed by the disaster. After Hemingway leaves, a friend, journalist Lincoln Steffens, takes Hadley in hand. “Steffens took me to dinner and tried to calm my nerves, but even with several whiskeys in me, I jangled.” She “jangled”: that is the complete description of Hadley’s emotional state during her husband’s desperate search for his lost writings.

McLain makes a mistake, too, of writing as if her readers already know the facts of Hemingway’s life, and more importantly, his philosophy. Though she is undoubtedly correct — most people who pick up this book will do so from an interest in Hemingway — her assumptions weaken her writing, with the reader left to fill in what she has left out. At the end of the book, for example, when Hadley is an old woman, she reports that “I couldn’t pretend to be surprised by Ernest’s death. I’d heard from various friends about the sanatorium in Rochester and the terrible shock treatments. Death was always there for him, sometimes only barely balanced out.” Balanced out by what? McLain doesn’t tell us. Indeed, Hadley’s emotional reaction to her first husband’s death seems as flat and cold as yesterday’s headlines.

Nonetheless, there are readers who always enjoy reading about the life of Papa. For them, The Paris Wife should provide some diverting entertainment.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 2011. 336 pages

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For Christians, Easter is a moveable feast day — this year the celebration fell about as late in the spring as it possibly can — which sparks consideration of the resurrection of Christ and all that this resurrection means for them. Many congregations hold sunrise services. The Moravians of Winston-Salem are famous for sending brass bands throughout the city during the early hours of Easter Sunday to greet this special day with music. Catholics light vigil fires outside their churches on Saturday evening and end Holy Week with a service that begins in darkness and explodes into light. Easter is the time of year when many churches welcome new members, when the fullness of the possibility of resurrection is contemplated by believers.

Like Christmas, Easter can make those who are not Christians more acutely aware of their inability or unwillingness to believe in such a personal god. Passing by churches filled with parishioners or worshippers standing in a meadow at sunrise, these non-believers may experience many reactions: scorn, indifference, a desire to believe but without the faith to do so. Atheists, whose numbers in America have grown in recent years, righteously declare that God doesn’t exist, but many more who lack faith in God travel under the uncertain banner of agnosticism.

In Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (ISBN 978-1-57731-912-2, $22.95), English professor and public radio host Michael Krasny has produced a wise and gentle look at agnosticism and religious faith. In our loud, cacophonous time, this age in which it too frequently seems that those who scream the loudest, who throw off the most crass insults, who gleefully and ignorantly deliver ad hominem attacks, Michael Krasny may seem in his call for tolerance like the Biblical voice crying in the wilderness. His restraint in terms of criticizing religious faith — coupled with his own examination of his inability to believe in an immanent god — makes this small book worthwhile reading for believers and non-believers alike.

What is best about Spiritual Envy is its mix of philosophy, faith, literature, and personal example. Krasny is more interested in exploring belief and disbelief, why some people believe and why others find belief an impossibility, than he is in winning arguments or slicing up those who disagree with him. He argues in the broad manner of a good “liberal humanist,” bringing in literary figures from Ian Fleming to Flannery O’Connor, philosophers from Augustine to Peter Singer, psychiatrists from John Mack to Ian Stevenson, poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Jim Croce.

Krasny also displays the mind of a liberal thinker — here I intend the old definition, the meaning associated with a liberal education, rather than the politics currently linked to the word — in trying to understand those whose religious faith acts as the grounding wire for life. He does indeed envy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers, and writes that he has frequently longed for their ability to find a personal god in the universe. He also speaks well and with understanding of those who do believe in that sort of god and who can’t figure out why their neighbors have so much trouble finding that faith. In fact, the only group for which he reserves a good store of scorn is for those nonbelievers who “view those who have religious zeal as evil or simple-minded.”

In our time, when a few religious fanatics and a few more atheists and secular-minded folk gain most of our attention by finger-pointing, by trying to limit free speech with the barbed wire of political correctness or religious zeal, and in a few cases, by killing those regarded as enemies, the odds are likely that Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy will be little read or heeded. We have grown unaccustomed to calls for real tolerance, to nuance in arguments, to what Krasny calls “the power of asking the right, or most reasonable and compelling, questions….”

Many among us no longer seek to ask such questions, or any questions, of those with whom we disagree, preferring to paste our opponents over with labels and bumper-stickers. In losing all sense of proportion — and as is often the case, all sense of humor as well — a large number of Americans have bought into the argument that the political truly is the personal, that the atheist must axiomatically despise the believer, and vice versa, with little regard for their human personhood. Those whose beliefs differ from our own are no longer living, breathing fellow beings, but caricatures to be avoided, gagged, or driven from our midst.

This failure is unfortunate. Such rude judgment makes objects of our neighbors, stripping them of their humanity. Worse, and on a grander scale, it leads to the creation of armed camps, of us versus them, of labeling other Americans as our enemies simply because their vision of life and death is different than our own.

Near the end of his book, Krasny writes:

“I have been emphasizing a code of respect for others and for what they do or do not believe. It boils down to recognizing that what people believe, or how they worship or act or don’t act on their belief or nonbelief, is, as my Dad would have jauntily put it, their own damn business as long as they do no harm.”

Where’s Dad when you need him?

 

Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny. New World Library, 2010.  264 pages.

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In A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir (978-1-4000-6794-7, $26), Norris Church Mailer gives an account of her marriage to Norman Mailer. Originally from Arkansas, and formerly married with one child, Norris met Mailer when she was in her mid-20s and Mailer was in his 50s, a writer at his prime who was nearly twice her age. They fell in love in a single night, and after Mailer had acquired a divorce from his fifth wife, were married and remained together, through good times and bad, for nearly 33 years.

A Ticket to the Circus offers fine insights into Mailer’s home life, into his thoughts and emotions, and into the New York society in which he thrived. Whether Mailer’s reputation will diminish with the passage of time remains to be seen, but we nevertheless come away from these pages impressed by his dedication to his writing — even in his later years he frequently carried a notebook for recording his impressions of the world around him, and he was of the school that believed writers should write each day no matter what sort of accidents befell them (at one point, when Mailer nearly lost his thumb and his life by cutting himself in a shower stall, he was still at his work desk the next day).

Here, too, we meet the Norman Mailer who so often captured headlines for various wild exploits and statements, and find that he was much the same in his private life. He really was a man of great energy and zest — Norris writes that he instigated arguments sometimes to see, with a novelist’s eye, where the argument might lead and what the consequences might be — who “came alive at the table much like he did onstage, and for years we were invited everywhere just for the entertainment value.”

Mailer loved to throw his own parties as well, and was well known for those given in his Manhattan apartment, which, according to Norris, “could comfortably hold about 50 people, but I know there were times when we had 200 or more.” Through her descriptions of these parties and the many glitterati who attended them, she imparts to us a sense both of their excitement and of the somewhat inbred society that was literary Manhattan at the time.

At one point, for example, she describes being seated for dinner next to Sam Walton, the owner of Wal-Mart, whose stores were just beginning their expansion into the enormous conglomerate of the early 21st century. They both enjoyed a laugh at the provincial nature of the New Yorker:

“I told him of talking to the headmaster of a private school for fifteen minutes about my work as an art teacher, the problems of education and whatever, until finally the headmaster asked me where I’d taught, and I’d said “Arkansas.” “They have art in Arkansas?” He’d been incredulous. Sam laughed.”

Norris is guileless in her writing about Mailer and about herself, which adds to its honesty but at times makes her seem like a bubble-headed model (she was, in fact, a professional model). Once, asked by Ethel Kennedy whether she would “be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer,” she thinks to herself that Norman would not have been with her had she weighed 300 pounds or “had looked like Groucho Marx.” True enough, but she approached the question from an odd angle, and seems unable to confront the idea that Mailer just might have been attracted her because she was a model who was half his age, a circumstance that might explain the attraction of many an older man with prestige and money.

In another passage, writing of her precocious son (are there any children living among these people who aren’t precocious?) drawing pictures of German soldiers with insignia on their uniforms, Norris adds off-handedly that “I always believed he had been either a German soldier or a Jew in the last war; sometimes he had nightmares about things he would or should never have known about.”

Despite these somewhat silly outbursts, or indeed, perhaps because of them, A Ticket to the Circus is worth a quick read. It gives us a portrait of the writer and of the pond in which he swam, and tells as well the story of an ambitious girl from the South who by her own lights made a success of herself.

•••

Stephen Hunter, creator of the legendary sniper Bob Lee Swagger, has written yet another novel about this aging hero. In Dead Zero (ISBN 978-1-4391-3856-6, $26), Swagger is once again summoned from his Idaho ranch to rescue the federal government. This time a sniper is on the loose who has the apparent intention of assassinating an Afghan warlord named Zarzi, a murderous villain who has suddenly become a valuable asset to the efforts of the United States in that region.

Despite its hokey ending — the conclusion seems about as likely as permanent peace in the Middle East — Dead Zero will appeal to long-time fans of Swagger and to all other readers who enjoy strong suspense novels. Hunter’s careful research into his subject — the weapons and tactics of the sniper, Afghan politics and warfare, and our domestic agencies which fight terrorism — is as always impressive, and his storytelling abilities will keep the reader turning the pages.

 

A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir by Norris Church Mailer. Random House, 2010. 416 pages

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In “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Louis Zamperini certainly was not born great. When he was little more than a toddler, his immigrant family moved from New York to Torrance, Calif., where some neighbors actually petitioned the town to keep out the Italian Zamperinis. As he grew older, Louis became an incorrigible troublemaker with a wild temper, fighting anyone who crossed his path – he once shoved a teacher and another time pelted a policeman with rotten tomatoes – and engaging in acts of petty theft. In 1931, and in the eighth grade, he broke into the high school gym, stole tickets to athletic events, and sold them. On being apprehended, Louis was forbidden to participate in any high school athletic or social activities.

His older brother, Pete, stepped up on Louis’s behalf and convinced him to allow Louis to play a sport. The principal agreed, Pete had Louis put on the school’s track team, and his life turned full circle. Soon he was breaking school records, then state records, and by the time the Depression decade ended, he had participated in the Berlin Olympics, was nearing his goal of a four-minute mile and was training hard for the 1940 Olympics.

World War II brought an end to Zamperini’s dreams of winning a gold medal. In Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (ISBN 978-1-4000-6416-8, $27), Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the best-selling Seabiscuit, tells the story of how Louis Zamperini had greatness thrust upon him. Trained as an airman, though he disliked flying, Zamperini was assigned to a B-24 squadron flying out of Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific. On May 27, 1943, sent on a mission to search for a missing plane, Zamperini’s B-24 crashed into the Pacific. Zamperini, his good friend Phil, and another man, Mac, survived not only the crash, but Zamperini and Phil – Mac died on the raft – also survived more than 40 days at sea, living on birds and raw fish, surrounded much of the time by sharks who bumped and thrust at the rubber rafts.

When they finally spotted land, both men, by now skeletal and weak, thought that their salvation was at hand, but their ordeal was only beginning. The Japanese had occupied the island and now took them prisoner, and the bulk of the remaining pages of this fine book describe the torments which they and other G.I.s suffered at Japanese hands.

Here some of the descriptions turn truly sickening – both men were, for example, guinea pigs for a medical experiment, which they survived (the Japanese killed thousands of people in these gruesome experiments; the doctors were not prosecuted at the war’s end in exchange for handing over their medical “research” to their American captors). As prisoners of the Japanese, American soldiers suffered daily beatings, out-of-hand executions, savage tortures, and deliberate psychological degradation designed to strip away their humanity.

Zamperini survived the constant brutality by cunning and by maintaining a constant sense of resistance to his captors. He and the other Americans, forced to work for the Japanese, did what they could to slow the war effort, deliberately breaking machinery, pouring sand into gasoline tanks, and stealing supplies. Frequently forced into silence, they learned to communicate through hand signals, Morse code, and barely audible whispered signals.

Hellenbrand’s account of Zamperini follows him through the war and into his later life. She has interviewed many who knew him, and does a splendid job of giving us an account of his nightmare years after the war: a fall into alcoholism, continual depression, a tendency to let his temper flare. Two people saved Zamperini from a life of hopeless despair and possible suicide: his young wife, Cynthia, who never gave up on him, and Billy Graham, then just beginning his ministry at age 31, preaching out of a big tent in Los Angeles. Cajoled by Cynthia into attending one of these services, Zamperini began going back to hear more of Graham‘s message. With a newfound faith, he began at that time to rehabilitate his wreck of a life.

Hillenbrand adds much to her account of Zamperini’s life by following the post-war career of his chief torturer, a man named Watanabe. Here the contrast in these two men’s lives is glaring. Pursued by both Japanese and American authorities for his war crimes, Watanabe hid out for years after the war, protected by friends and relatives, and by the chaos of post-war Japan. Later, when amnesty was granted to war criminals, he emerged from the shadows, opened an insurance agency, lived in a luxury apartment, and owned a vacation home on Australia’s Gold Coast. When contacted by Zamperini, who had forgiven the guard for his daily tortures, Watanabe refused to meet, and though he apologized through various interviews to those he had killed and beaten, Watanabe seemed at his death largely unrepentant of his crimes.

Unbroken is a fine biography, filled with the history of the time and capable of arousing in its readers enormous respect for those who survive such ordeals and an enormous disgust for those who help create them.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 2010. 496 pages.

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Art in America by Ron McLarty. Viking Adult, 2008. 384 pages.

In Art in America (ISBN 978-0670—01895-6, $25.95), Ron McLarty introduces us to the world of the artist —the writer, the musician, the playwright, the actor, the painter — as it exists in the year 2009.

Here you will not find the writers and artists normally created by the popular imagination, neither best-selling novelists and electronic artists making six figure incomes nor radicals who slash and gouge at their hated bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary: Art in America gives us a series of portraits of artists as they generally are, real people who struggle to earn a living while still practicing their art, ordinary people in some ways who suffer the same maladies of modern life as the rest of us: unemployment, malaise, cancer, family troubles.

Steven Kearney has written tens of thousands of pages — novels, poems, essays, plays — none of which has ever tasted the sweet wine of publisher’s ink. Booted out of his apartment by his fed-up girl friend, then struck by a car while wandering into the street, he eventually lands at the apartment of his best friend Roarke, a lesbian who brings him back to health and encourages him to continue his writing. Kearney works for a friend in construction to earn some fast money, then is contacted by a woman from Southern Colorado who remembers him from a writing conference and wants him to write a play for the historical society about their town, Creedemore.

Kearney accepts this three-month position and heads for Creedemore. Here he lands in the middle of a range war over water rights. On one side is Ticky Lettgo, a crusty, aged landowner who claims all rights to the water running through his land. On the other side is Red Fields, a newcomer who wants to use the river to develop a whitewater rafting business. As Kearney works away at his play, he must also find a middle road between the warring factions of the town. Lettgo fires on Fields’ rafting party, putting holes through the rafts and bringing the town to the attention of the national press. The townspeople begin to take sides during the trial, with Sheriff Petey Meyers, a recent transplant from Boston, trying to maintain order between these two factions. Soon a radical domestic terrorist enters the scene — she intends to blow up the local dam — and a score of other characters give us glimpses of themselves and of life in the West. Meanwhile, Kearney has fallen in love with Mollie Downs, a cancer survivor and local painter who finds the value and beauty of his writing.

The jacket promos of Art in America uses words like “warmth and heart” in describing the work of Ron McLarty. He is known, we are informed, “for fashioning authentic, well-conceived characters that feel like people you’ve met.”

The above statements regarding Art in America accurately describe Art in America. The “warmth and heart” to this writing are not sloppily sentimental, but are genuine and likeable. Moreover, McLarty has the talent to show us the evolution of his characters in a natural way. Abhorring the radicals who swam the town to take his side and cause near-riots in the street, “Mountain Man” Red Fields moves from hating Lettgo and his stand on water rights to befriending him. Beaten down by life and by his failures as a writer, Steven Kearney finds his historical play a success and a place for himself in the town. Like so many others before him, he has “Gone West” and found a new life. He “realizes that he’s too old to keep beating up on himself and discovers both love and a new confidence.”

McLarty also has a wonderful eye for the humorous, the silly, and the whimsical. Kearney’s introduction to the West, Red Field’s shot-up canoe expedition, the antics of Ticky Lettgo: these and many more scenes bring pleasure to the reader. Performed at the end of the book, Kearney’s historical play brings together all of the characters, sometimes in humorous ways. Here, for example, Suzy, a radical advocating the abolition of property rights, marches into the middle of the outdoor drama chanting slogans, and is confronted by a poet-cowboy, Cowboy Bob. After ad-libbing some poetry telling Suzy to run, Cowboy Bob glares down at her from his white horse:

“Suzy’s in-place marching pumped the scholar’s blood into her already stuffed brain. She smirked at the rhyme and breathing heavily to the rhythm of her steps shouted: ‘I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating an image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.’ Jean Paul Sartre!

“Cowboy Bob would have to think about that one for a while, but when he heard another round of applause for her retort, he simply lost it. He reared up and fired two quarter-blank loads a foot or so over her head.”

For a country which is often sorely divided by politics and religion, Art in America offers a vision of reconciliation and mutual respect. It offers art as one possible venue toward that reconciliation. Even more, it offers as an antidote to poisonous political hatreds a sense of humor, a humor which in turn promises a sense of perspective and even an understanding of those opposed to us.

Highly recommended.

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Some The Smoky Mountain News readers may remember a review here several seasons ago of Bill Walker’s Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. In that book we met the appropriately named Walker narrating his adventures while hiking the Appalachian Trail. His descriptions of his fellow trailblazers and their various idiosyncrasies made his account a delight for both experienced hikers and general readers.

In Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (ISBN 9781453862230), Walker ventures to the other side of the continent tackle the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which as he notes in his book “is extraordinary. The diversity of its geology is unequaled by any other footpath in the world.”

Walker goes on to make his case for this bold statement by taking us along with him on his hike and showing us that the PCT, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, runs the gamut from desert to mountains with elevations exceeding 14,000 feet, from the High Sierra, which is frequently blanketed with snow, to the delights of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and the ski resorts of Squaw Valley. Because of its twists and turns – the distance covered in a straight line on a map is just over 1,000 miles – the PCT is nonetheless nearly 500 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail, coming in at 2,663.5 miles.

In addition to giving us an account of this terrain and the challenges it presents, Walker recounts his own personal trials. His very height, for example, often worked against him. An extraordinarily tall man – Walker is 6’11” and appears a giant alongside his fellow hikers in the book’s photographs – he points out that the average height of a Boston Marathon winner is just over 5’7”. He then determines that the average hiker of average height would use about 5,000 calories daily, whereas his own caloric demands ran to nearly 7,000 calories daily. On any given five-day trek, then, Walker found that he could carry only about half the food needed to give him the necessary calories. Not only did he lose a great amount of weight during his walk, but he became so emaciated that he feared being unable to finish the trail. In one photograph, he bares his chest and has the look of a man on a starvation strike.

As in his Appalachian account, Walker also gives us many fine thumbnail sketches of his fellow hikers. One of my favorites was his portrait of “Pretty Boy Joe” – all the hikers have nicknames, or are given them by Walker to protect their identity in the book – a 22-year-old graduate of the University of California. “With his long, lean physique,” writes Walker, “straight gaze, and manner of speaking in the soft, unhurried cadences of the West, he even reminded me of a younger Clint Eastwood.” Though the son of a wealthy California realtor, Pretty Boy Joe often dumpster dives for food when off the trail and would have been, Walker contends, a kindred soul with pioneers like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Though Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail may seem an odd book to review in a paper devoted to the Smoky Mountains, Walker’s love for his subject and the exuberance of his descriptions make this book a worthy addition to any hiker’s library.

•••

Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (ISBN 978-1-4000-6951-4, $27) attracted a good deal of criticism for its lack of personal detail regarding Salinger’s reclusive years and for what some reviewers called a fawning attitude.

Such negative criticism of Salinger: A Life is unfortunate, for there is gold to be mined in these pages for all those who love the work of the author of Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and the other stories published before the author, tormented by publicity and on a spiritual quest, went into hiding. To chide Slawenski for loving Salinger’s books is ridiculous: what sort of biographer would want to write 400 pages about an author whom he disliked?

Slawenski carefully works his way through Salinger’s stories, and fans will take delight in his insights and his careful critiques. In addition, he goes to great lengths to examine Salinger’s spiritual development over the years, his increasing association of the spiritual with the act of writing, and his obsessive need for the private life (Salinger’s own daughter was unaware of her father’s occupation until she went to school, where an amused teacher told her that her father was a famous author).

Nor will readers be disappointed by Slawenski’s personal history of Salinger. He has done great service here showing us the depth of the effect of World War II on the young writer, and gives us blow-by-blow accounts of Salinger’s battles with the public, publishers, and copy-cat authors. Doubtless he does leave out some of Salinger’s mean-spirited behavior toward his wives and children, but a good bit of this side of the story is gossip and another good bit has already found documentation elsewhere. Given the penchant in our society for finding “dirt” on our celebrities, it is a relief in many ways to read the biography of an author in which the biographer seems as interested in his subject’s work as in a body count of the women bedded or the friends and lovers mistreated.

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Though heroin and cocaine are dangerous and illegal, both drugs carry with them a cachet, the dark romance of, say, the doomed hard-rock singer or the wild film star. Alcoholics — unless you happen to live with one — are still regarded by our culture as either tragic figures or lovable clowns. Even cigarette smokers, hounded from the work place and restaurants, shoved into the cold streets, penalized with taxes higher than those once levied by the English on our forefathers, may still occasionally appear in the public eye as mysterious and cool, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or as tormented, like Sandra Bullock in “Twenty-eight Days.”

Fat people, however, receive no such ancillary laurels, no tarnished crowns. They are simply fat, and those around them regard them with a mixture of repugnance, aversion, disgust and horror. They eat too much, they drink too much, they exercise too little. They are quite literally shaped by their gluttony, and our pity usually extends no further than “There but for the grace of God and dietetic caution go I.”

That this pity is so limited is itself a pity. Few of us watching an obese man wheel about in a mobilized shopping cart in Wal-Mart or a woman the size of a freezer trying to keep up with her 3-year-old rarely put ourselves into that person’s shoes — or oversized sweat pants. We make jokes instead, offer insults like the one in the previous sentence, and wonder why someone grown so gargantuan would continue to eat bags of oily salted chips and drink vats of cola or beer.

In other words, we rarely try, as we might with the drug addict — poor tortured devil! — or the alcoholic — poor demon-driven sot! — to understand fat people, much less sympathize with them. The ignorant, gluttonous sods have eaten themselves into a hillock of flesh, and if they really disliked their shape and physical health, then they would take up a dietary spade — in some cases, a dietary bulldozer — and reduce the sides of that hill.

In Designated Fat Girl (978-0-7627-5962-0, $16.95), North Carolina author Jennifer Joyner tells us what it’s like to be fat, how it feels when you can’t help your child off the slide at McDonald’s because you’re too big to get up the ladder, how you look at yourself in the mirror each day and weep, how you go day after day wondering how your husband can love you. And not only does Joyner tell us how awful she felt about the weight she carried, she also demonstrates how she put on this weight, the double meals ordered at the windows of fast-food restaurants, the binges on pepperoni pizza and Coke, the times that she would “take a loaf of bread, a jar of pasta sauce, and a tub of butter, and over the course of an afternoon, I would eat all of it.”

In addition, Joyner shares the awful side-effects of obesity: the inability to tie her shoes, to take the Christmas decorations to the attic, to keep herself physically clean, to properly care for her husband and children. If we read attentively Joyner’s account of her life and her struggles with over-eating and with a poor diet, we begin to perceive what we may have missed in our judgments of the overweight. We understand that our fellow human beings don’t like being fat, that indeed they despise their condition, that they may have tried numerous times and ways, as did Joyner, to break their emotional dependence on food. Rather than revulsion, by the time we finish Designated Fat Girl we may even begin to feel a real pity for those who cannot break themselves of overeating, who look to food as solace in a hard, revved-up world of expectations and demands.

Jennifer Joyner finally defeated her food problem — she once weight 336 pounds — by undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Readers who experience her account of this surgery and who have perhaps felt that such an operation provided an easy way to knock off unwanted pounds in bowling ball numbers will quickly find their preconceptions disabused. Joyner suffered severe health problems from her surgery, including a partially collapsed lung and a reliance on prescription pain medication, and she continues to struggle with vitamin deficiency, as do all patients of such an operation, necessitating a dependence on various supplements.

Despite her conclusion that she would not encourage others to undergo gastric surgery — there was, Joyner says, too much pain and too many complications from her own surgery — she nonetheless does encourage those with the same problem to consider it as an option after having weighed its risks. Joyner herself does lose a massive amount of weight, and emerges from her struggles with both food and depression with a renewed sense of self-worth and an appreciation of “all my many blessings: a wonderful marriage, two great, healthy kids, and finally, some happiness.”

Designated Fat Girl is an honest book which will give strength to those who struggle against weight and overeating. To those who have long wondered why some people just can’t stop eating, it offers a unique portrait that should arouse a sense of compassion and understanding.

Designated Fat Girl by Jennifer Joyner. skirt!, 2010. 264 pages

Comment

In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (ISBN 978-1-4000-6893-7, 2010, $25), first-time novelist Helen Simonson has created a superb portrait of life and love in a contemporary English village.

Edgecombe St. Mary is the name of the village, and by the end of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand readers will feel as if several of the inhabitants of Edgecombe are their neighbors. There is, first of all, the widower Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, a retired military officer and head of an ancient village family, an old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip Englishman with a subtle sense of the absurd and a dry wit and compassion that will endear him to those who come to know him.

The major has fallen in love with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper and widow whose family is trying to displace her in her work with a fervently Islamic nephew. Mrs. Ali is a strong women of decided opinions who is disinclined to go along with the plans of her relatives and who slowly feels herself drawn to the major. As the two of them grow closer, their families and their friends in the village begin to do their utmost to separate them.

Around the major and Mrs. Ali swirl a host of other characters: the major’s son, Roger, who is trying his best to be a high flyer in the London business and social world; Amina, a courageously forthright Pakistani woman with connections to Mrs. Ali and her nephew; the ladies and gentlemen of the local golfing club, who add much to the humor of the story; Marjorie, Maj. Pettigrew’s sister-in-law, who spends a good deal of the novel dickering with him about a valuable shotgun owned by her deceased husband; Alice, Maj. Pettigrew’s eccentric next-door neighbor, who leads the fight against plans to develop Edgecombe; and a platoon of others who lend sparkle and froth to this champagne bottle of a book.

In addition to its intriguing storyline — Simonson manages at the end to tie up all the loose ends plot and subplots as deftly as the major manages his life — Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is distinguished by its wit and by the fine writing of its author. In this passage, for instance, Maj. Pettigrew, Roger, and Roger’s American girl friend Sandy are discussing the purchase of a nearby cottage which Roger intends to purchase. After having met Mrs. Augerspier, the owner of the cottage, Roger announces to his father that he intends to do his best to beat her down on the price of the property. He tells his father, who has taken a dislike to Mrs. Augerspier for her blatant bigotry regarding Mrs. Ali, that they can best take their revenge by getting the cottage at a low price.

“‘On what philosophical basis does that idea rest?’ asked the Major. Roger gave a vague wave of the hand and the Major saw him roll his eyes for Sandy’s benefit.

“’Oh, it’s simple pragmatism, Dad. It’s called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?’

“’On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?’ suggested the Major.”

Her choice of words and the way she puts together her sentences, many of them flawless in their precision, are the building stones for this cathedral of high comedy. Major Pettigrew is that rarity among novels these days, an extremely well-written story with in which the words stand like stacked stones, each chosen to fit exactly in its place, all while the writer keeps us enthralled by her characters and their stories. Simonson has lived in the United States for 20 years, but her writing here is distinctly English, with just the proper touch of word-play and drama. Here she describes the major after a young Pakistani has moved into his house for a few days:

“Roger and Sandy went to fetch their hamper and as the Major tried not to think of truffles, which he had always avoided because they stank like sweaty groins, Abdul Wahid came out of the house. As usual he was carrying a couple of dusty religious texts tucked tightly under his armpit partly and was wearing the dour frown from which the Major now understood was the result of excessive thinking rather than mere unhappiness. The Major wished young men wouldn’t think so much. It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements, or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.”

It is common today for some critics and readers to complain about the mediocre state of contemporary literature, and some of these complaints possess a certain validity. Many books nowadays do indeed bear the mark of a graduate school‘s “writer’s workshop,” many offer the reader unbelievably eccentric characters or unrealistic plots, and many never come to life at all, remaining dull and lifeless as the dead trees which gave manufacture to their pages. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, however, Helen Simonson has reminded us what fiction can be — delightful, life-enhancing, provocative of emotion and intellect.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Random House, 2010. 368 pages.

Comment

Some novels call to mind certain family members. There are the wise old stories that remind us of our grandparents, the zany tales whose style and tone dredge up our crazy but loveable Uncle Harry, the comic narratives whose humor somehow suggests our great-aunt Sally, the cautionary accounts that somehow summon up our parents or our older brothers and sisters.

Then there are those books that come at us like a troubled son, one of our children whom we dearly cherish but who gives us no end of bother. We love this son, but we want to like him as well, and we would like him if he would just behave the way we want him to behave, if he would just act like our neighbor’s kid next door, that paragon of learning and virtue who glided through a top-flight university and landed a lovely wife, 2.4 children, and a six-figure salary helping starving children in Africa. Instead, we’re stuck at home looking at an overgrown kid with an Ipod stuck to his ears, two days growth of beard on his face, clothing two weeks overdue for the washing machine, and ambition a concept as unfamiliar as its synonym spizerinctum.    

Some books are like that.

David Gilmour’s The Film Club (ISBN 978-0-446-19930-8, $13.99) tells the story of Gilmour, an out-of-work Canadian television personality, and his son, Jesse, whom Gilmour allows to drop out of school at the age of 15 under the condition that he watch three movies a week of his father’s choosing. Agreeing to this rule, Jesse leaves school, and we then follow him and Gilmour as they make their way through a stack of movies and the thickets of a father-son relationship.

Much of this book will appeal to the general reader. Gilmour’s knowledge of film, employed during his television career as a critic — he is also the author of six novels — is both broad and deep. His comments on the movies which he chooses for Jesse, films ranging from “Giant” to “Ran,” from Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “The Godfather,” are astute and will encourage readers to seek out films with which they are unfamiliar. Gilmour is a critic who notices the small details in movies — the way Ralph Fiennes uses his eyes in Quiz Show, the way Marlon Brando moves, the way Cary Grant can “embody good and evil simultaneously” in “Notorious” — and then educates his readers in these details, encouraging them to look at movies with a critic’s eye.

Gilmour’s account of his time with Jesse also appeals. He is unflinching in his portrayal of his son and himself during this time. Jesse falls in love several times, sleeps with young women, drinks too much, does drugs, and seems to have a penchant for involving himself in troublesome situations. Gilmour, too, exhibits warts which he displays here. Once, for example, wanting to buy the house beside the home of his ex-wife — they have remained close — he gets Jesse and some of his wild friends to hang out on his wife’s porch on the afternoon of the open house. Many of the buyers, seeing the porch teeming with teens drinking and smoking cigarettes, never even stop to look at the property; the real estate agent becomes incensed; and eventually Gilmour realizes that he has committed a moral wrong by thwarting the sale.

These are the loveable parts of the book. The annoying parts, the ones that bring to mind that difficult son who has a knack for raising both our blood pressure and our wonderment at the vagaries of creation, rest with Gilmour himself. In some ways, he epitomizes a stereotypical modern father: fearful of being disliked by his children, ashamed at times to address a problem squarely, doubtful of his own set of verities. Jesse does eventually find his way back into the world of education, he does gain a sense of ambition and self-worth, but as Gilmour himself suggests, his plan for his son’s education could easily have taken a downward path, leading Jesse into a deeper morass of confusion and loss of self-respect. Gilmour seems to lack some rudimentary base in his own life, some code by which he abides. Consequently, he frequently comes across here as weak or foolish, with no apparent awareness that he appears this way.

There is one truly tender and sweet moment in the The Film Club during which we do admire Gilmour as a father. When the Gilmours visit Cuba, Jesse goes out of the hotel supposedly to enjoy a cigarette, but then slips away to explore the streets of Havana. Following him, Gilmour saves his son from being rousted by three crooks, and the two of them then sit in a café until nearly dawn. Here in a few pages Gilmour paints a scene of himself and his son sitting in the old city, drinking beer and smoking cigars, watching the street, and talking about women and life, that cause us to see Jesse’s goodness and innocence and Gilmour’s own concern and love for his son. Parents who do face difficulties with teenagers, particularly boys, will take hope from this poignant scene and from the book’s conclusion. Far greater than we may think when we are in the thick of our own coming-of-age wars is the possibility for a lasting peace and a loving relationship. Gilmour’s book is a testament to such an outcome.

If you don’t mind putting up with some of Gilmour‘s annoying approaches to fatherhood, The Film Club might be something worth joining.


The Film Club by David Gilmour. Twelve, 2008. 256 pages.

Comment

Anyone who has driven state roads between Asheville and Winston-Salem has quite possibly seen those state historical markers commemorating the passage of Stoneman’s raiders in the spring of 1865. North Carolina has erected 19 of these markers — the largest for any historical event in the state. Most of us who have seen the markers doubtless pass them by without too much thought, though not so long ago, when the first markers were set in place just before World War II, some disgusted citizens tore them out of the ground and threw them into a river.

So Chris J. Hartley tells us in Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 (ISBN 978-0-89587-377-4, 2010, $27.95). He further adds in his “preface” that Stoneman’s Raid also inspired The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (“Stoneman’s cavalry came and they tore up the track again”) and the Disney movie “Menace on the Mountain,” starring Mitch Vogel and Jodie Foster.

If you haven’t heard of George Stoneman and his 1865 cavalry raid through Southwestern Virginia and Western and Piedmont North Carolina, don’t be too dismayed. This raid occurred late in the war, was conducted against an enemy that was already tottering on the brink of defeat, and was overshadowed by enormous events like the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Nevertheless, Stoneman’s destructive tear across the middle of the Old North State caused immense physical destruction to local manufacturing, railroads, and farms, and brought privation to a people already suffering from the depredations of a four-year war. Near the end of his history of the raid, Hartley writes that:

“Violence, poverty, and isolation: these were the terrible, yet very real, outcomes of the end of the Civil War and Stoneman’s Raid in particular. They thrived long afterward in the areas touched by the raid and even found their way into postwar literature, which helped create the hillbilly stereotype that endures in the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to this day.”

Until he began his famous — some might say infamous — raid in March 1865, George Stoneman was regarded by one high-ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet as “one of the most worthless officers in the service.“ This reputation, at least among Northerners, changed for the better when Stoneman led 4,000 cavalry from Tennessee into Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina, cutting wide paths of destruction across the war-weary countryside, tearing up railroads, burning bridges, sacking cities, and engaging and defeating the Confederates he found in dozens of skirmishes and battles. His ravaging of a defeated Confederacy did not end with Lee’s surrender, but continued into the late spring after the capture of Jefferson Davis and the cessation of hostilities east of the Mississippi.  

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 succeeds on several fronts. First, Hartley has thoroughly researched the people and events associated with the raid. He offers sketches of dozens of participants and displays the evidence of the depth of his research in the details he supplies and the notes at the back of the book. Here, for example, we meet both the civilian leaders and the ordinary citizens from towns like Asheville, Salisbury and Salem, which only years after the war became Winston-Salem. We learn about the lives of the Union soldiers, some of whom evidently behaved no better than Sherman’s bummers, and of the Confederate regulars and militia who opposed the invasion of their homeland.

Hartley also has a military man’s eye for tactics and strategy. He knows the terrain of which he writes, a key factor in understanding any military operation, and understands too the factors of supply and morale in any fighting force. He shows us the surprise of the Confederate officers at Stoneman’s grasp of regional geography — he was supplied with adequate maps, and took care to bribe or cajole locals into giving him information. In his accounts of various skirmishes, Hartley demonstrates too how the Confederate simply could not stand up to the superior firepower of Yankee repeating rifles and the often overwhelming numbers of their troopers.

Finally, Hartley is a fine writer. He is one of those “amateur” historians — he earns his living in marketing — like Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough who understands how to bring the past alive, how to make it breathe on a written page. One Union force, for instance, after passing through Asheville under a flag of truce, turned back, surprised the Confederate soldiers in the town, and then began looting and burning in what Hartley describes as “the worst episode of the entire raid.”

“Federal cavalrymen barged into homes, tearing plaster from walls and ceilings, ripping open mattresses, and rifling through clothing in a mad search for hidden valuables. A prominent Unionist managed to obtain a guard, but the detail got lost and ended up protecting the property of a diehard Confederate while the Unionist’s house was ransacked…’Through the night pandemonium held sway,’ an eyewitness wrote, ‘and Asheville will never again hear such sounds and witness such scenes — pillage of every character and destruction the most wanton.’”

For Civil War students, for those who wish to have a look at the cost of a war that took place literally in their own back yards, and for all who enjoy reading history that is both dramatically presented and solidly researched, Chris J. Hartley’s Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 will make fine reading on these cold winter nights.

 

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 by Chris J. Hartley. John F. Blair, 2010. 464 pages.

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