Saluting Cynthia Ozick

July 30, 2021 at 8:10 pm (Book review, books, Judaism)

Cynthia Ozick is “…an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.”

Thus saith Wikipedia.

This statement is, of course, entirely accurate. Except that it doesn’t convey half of what this writer has achieved in her long and varied life, a life lived in literature and in the explication of the New York mind and the Jewish mind.

Ozick’s latest fiction is entitled Antiquities. In it, a superannuated academic relates his melancholy life story, which is centered on a relationship which was formed in a boarding school. There, the adolescent narrator contracts an intense friendship with the oddly named Ben-Zion Elefantin. The latter is Jewish – emphatically so – which makes him an untouchable at the school. The narrator, by association, also becomes untouchable. But having had few intimates to begin with, it hardly matters.

This is a mordant, melancholy little tome (192 pages in hardcover), enlivened frequently by Ozick’s wit and eloquence:

It is from my discreet and quietly dispirited mother, in a burst of confession in her seventieth year, and seriously ailing, that I know something of the effects of this perfunctory escapade.

Really, I do live to absorb such phrases as “perfunctory escapade!” And to just what is this felicitous phrase referring? You will find out as you read. At this point I will only say that it has to do with a journey to Egypt, to see the ancient ruins, in the company of none other than William Flinders Petrie:

Here I speak of William Matthew Flinders Petrie, knighted by the Queen, and more  broadly known as the illustrious archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie.

More on this expedition:

He describes the green of the water, a massive colony of storks dipping their beaks, a glimpse of an occasional water buffalo, and on the opposite bank, as they were nearing the First Cataract at Aswan, a series of boulders on the fringe of what (so the guide informed him) was an island with a history of its own, littered with the vestigial ruins of forgotten worship.

‘vestigial ruins of forgotten worship…’ With such eloquence is Ozick’s prose liberally strewn, like the potsherds at an ancient site.

Antiquities is both intriguing and puzzling. It is mercifully short – just under two hundred pages. I enjoyed it.

I am not nearly as well read in this author’s works as I should be. But I wanted to take this opportunity to praise her. Ozick’s life in letters is greatly to be admired.

Born in 1928, this year Cynthia Ozick turned ninety-three.

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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A book discussion, with a brief true crime digression

July 22, 2021 at 3:22 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

I thought this would be a good discussion – but I didn’t know just how good!

First of all, the turnout was better that I’d anticipated – ten people, which is a good number for this type of gathering. And secondly, everyone was primed to let loose with their feelings and impressions.

There was general agreement that the novel was a terrific reading experience. Right from the outset, Jeanine Cummins manages to generate tremendous suspense, while creating characters that are real and immensely sympathetic.

When their entire family is ruthlessly murdered at their home in Acapulco, Lydia and her son Luca are the sole survivors. The killers, members of a powerful cartel, will not stop until they have taken out Lydia and Luca as well. And so mother and son must  flee; there is no alternative. They do as so many of their countrymen, as well as others from further South have done: They join los migrantes on their journey, north to el norte.

And what a journey it is – full of danger  and heartbreak. I felt as though I were going along with them. Except that I could take a break and close the book for a while – something I kept having to do. Lydia and Luca and the others had no choice but to keep going.

Carol admitted that she paged forward to the conclusion so she could be reassured that Lydia and Luca survived their ordeal. In her review for the New York Times, Lauren Groff says: “A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, American Dirt, I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house.” (This is a terrific article, well worth reading in its entirety.)

Connie reminded us of the importance of the issue of trust in this story. On top of the day to day worries concerning mere survival, Lydia had to be constantly looking over her shoulder to see if there were someone – it could be anyone – traveling with their group who was in the pay of the cartel whose leader wanted her dead, That person could reveal her whereabouts, or just kill her outright. If anything happened to her, what would become of Luca?

Luca. To me, he was the beating heart of this novel. An exceptionally bright little boy, with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of justice; moreover, he was endowed with warmth and generosity, plus other endearing traits that make some children especially lovable.

It’s hard to discuss American Dirt without dwelling on the controversy that surrounded its publication early last year. Certain commentators, especially from the Latino and Latina communities, tore into it, claiming that Cummins’s description of the migrants was stereotyped and inaccurate. The consensus among them seemed to be that she was writing about people and an experience that she  simply didn’t understand – couldn’t understand, because of her outsider status.

I read up on this subject to a fair degree, and I think that the harshest criticism stems from the fact that American Dirt was given such a large publicity push by its publisher, Flatiron Books, accompanied, at least initially, with rapturous praise. Among other things, this resulted in Jeanine Cummins receiving a seven-figure advance and American Dirt being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.. Other worthy titles by Latino and Latina writers have been given nowhere near this kind of support, by their publishers or by anyone else.

From Ann Patchett:

“There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention….If it had  been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d  be seeing the same level of outrage.”

For my part, I can understand the frustration and resentment occasioned by this incident. I also feel that certain practices by the publishing industry have  been been exposed to the glare of publicity and are being seen as arbitrary and money-grubbing. In my opinion, rightly so.

One thing I can’t agree with at all is the level of disparagement that, in some cases, has  been directed at this novel. The most egregious example of this that I personally have seen comes from a review in the New York Times by Parul Sehgal. I don’t want to quote from this article at any length here, because it makes me slightly crazy just to look at it. Suffice it to say that among the brickbats Parul Sehgal hurls at American Dirt is the assertion that Cummins is guilty of “mauling the English language.”

Did she read the same novel I did ?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m hypersensitive about precision, beauty, and correctness in writing. One misplaced apostrophe and I’m likely to go off on a rant. So I just want to voice the opinion here that American Dirt contains some of the most powerful and compelling writing I’ve encountered in a work of fiction in a long time.

This sentence describes the first  glimpse Lydia and Luca get of the notorious freight train known as La Bestia – The Beast:

There’s a new reverence to having seen it with their own eyes, the unfeeling crush of the wheels along their rails, the men clinging to the exoskeleton like beetles on a window screen.

Holding Luca outside her body for the first time, Lydia expected there would be a moment when these notions would flood through her, all at once, like a small death. A portal. She’d hoped, like on of those desert rattlesnakes, to shed the skin off her anguish and leave it behind her in the Mexican dirt. But the moment of the crossing had already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante.

(That last word is translated by Google as ‘Go ahead.’ In this context, I think it actually means ‘Keep going.’)

I think that this article in Vox provides a good summary of the controversy.

I believe I speak fairly for our group when I say that we thought this novel was outstanding. The plot – especially the creation and maintaining of extreme suspense, the memorable characters, the writing – every aspect won praise. Two people had first hand experience of travel in Mexico; they expressed that from their viewpoint,  Cummins’s depiction of the country was reasonably accurate.

We felt genuine sympathy for writers whose work hasn’t had the kind of push Jeanine Cummins got from Flatiron Books and Oprah Winfrey. From Daniel Hernandez in the Los Angeles Times:

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events.

He adds, significantly:

The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

This, then, is the fault of insensitive publisher and publicist, and not the fault of the novel at all.

I don’t think that any of us subscribed to the notion that an author should only write about groups, ethnicities, or whatever, of which he or she is, or has been, an active member. It is possible to identify powerfully with people who are “other” than yourself. Why do I feel so connected to England and its ancient history and persisting myths?? I have no blood relation to any of it. But from my very young years I have identified with it, felt part of it. When I am there, I feel a strong sense of belonging. It may be irrational, but it is potent nonetheless. Empathy can be a very powerful emotion, enabling you to transcend differences.

I want to acknowledge that  this is the third time in as many years that this group has caused me to read a book I initially had no intention of reading. (The other two were Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko.) I’m very glad to have read all three. Thanks, AAUW Readers!

American Dirt is in development as a feature film. There’s very little current information on it that I could find. Here’s the trailer, but it too is pretty uninformative.

I feel as though I’ve left out quite a bit here, both from our discussion and the novel itself. I hope their are no blatant inaccuracies. Please let me know if you spot any.
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In the course of my brief biographical sketch of Jeanine Cummins, I mentioned that her first book was a work of nonfiction entitled A Rip in Heaven. In it she tells the story of a crime, or crimes, that took place within her own family. We briefly got into a discussion of the genre of true crime books. I read extensively in this area and taught a short course in it for Osher a couple of years ago. If you have further interest, there is lots of material online. I have written quite a few posts on the subject for this blog. If you want to read just one, I recommend ‘The Enduring Fascination with True Crime.’

 

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Dark Sky by C.J. Box: One Wild – and Very Satisfying – Ride

July 18, 2021 at 11:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   So I was searching Google trying to come up with adjectives that would describe the experience of reading this book: spine-tingling, bloodcurdling, electrifying, gripping, edge-of-your seat… You get the idea. It was all of the aforementioned, and more.

As the plot of Dark Sky unfolds, the unwary reader may be forgiven for assuming that this will be a more or less traditional mystery, traditionally paced. But no! Do not make such an unthinking assumption.

Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming; he’s also a family man. Wife Marybeth is the director of the town library; they have three daughters, all quickly reaching adulthood. Sheridan, the oldest, has an important supporting part in the drama that’s about to unfold.

Joe has been chosen by the state’s governor to lead an elk hunting expedition in the Bighorn Mountains. This would not ordinarily be part of Joe’s remit, but  the circumstances are special: the expedition is being mounted on behalf of one Steve Price, a star of California’s Silicon Valley elite. Steve is the founder and owner of a wildly popular social media site called Confab and also of another company called Aloft. The governor has his reasons  for wanting this tech billionaire to have an excellent experience on this outing.

At first, all goes as planned. But there’s a party of malefactors roaming the mountains who have a bone to pick with Steve Price. And due to Steve’s compulsive – and very up to date – posts on Confab, they know where he is,  who he is with, and what he’s doing. Other forces are arrayed against Steve, and therefore against Joe as well, as they undertake their arduous journey up into the Bighorns.

There’s a subplot involving a falconry outfit owned and operated by one Nate Romanowski. He’s a good friend of the Pickett family, but he has a tendency to play by his own rules, rules which sometimes skirt the law. Dark Sky is also about the ethics of hunting and the treatment of animals living in the wild. (In beautiful and sparsely populated Wyoming, there are plenty of those.) Horses too play a major role in the lives of the protagonists.

Box’s writing is wonderful, and his characters are fully three-dimensional and believable. And yes, this is one of those novels about which people exclaim, “I couldn’t put it down!” But I have to say, Dear Reader, that this is actually not my favorite reading experience. I like fiction that causes me to pause, think, evaluate, and wonder. And  Dark Sky caused me to do all of these things. That’s not to say that the narrative didn’t also scare me in places, because it most certainly did.

This is the twenty-first entry in the Joe Pickett series. I read Open Season, the first one, when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it, but for whatever reason, as the series continued, I didn’t keep up with it. However, as time went on, the reviews got increasingly laudatory. (Plus I’d developed a relationship with Wyoming for the best of reasons.) So I returned to the fold with 2019’s Wolf Pack. I liked it so much I stuck around for Long Range, which was even better. And as for Dark Sky – it was simply the best.

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‘An Indian chieftain jingled along beside her as she made her way to the butcher’s shop; a stick of rhubarb perched on her dog; a mouse issued from her arm; a soap dish chased her down the stairs.’ – The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

June 21, 2021 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books)

  What? thought I. A book about seances,  ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, etc. etc. Who would want to read about such silly stuff? What serious author would even write about it?

Kate Summerscale would. And in fact, she’s the reason I obtained this book in the first place. Summerscale’s nonfiction is excellent; I’ve read Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, The Wicked Boy, and most especially her true crime masterpiece, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Kate Summerscale

So, on the strength of  my great liking for this author’s previous work, I determined to give The Haunting of Alma Fielding a try. I picked it up…

And of course, I couldn’t put it down.

The year was 1938. The place was Croydon, a borough in South London. Alma Fielding lived there with her husband, son, and a lodger. Alma was a thoroughly unremarkable young woman who was, apparently, tired of being unremarkable. Suddenly, in her house, all sorts of bizarre things began to happen, along the lines of what I quoted in the title of this post.

An article about these strange occurrences appeared in a local paper; this brought the situation to the attention  of a striving psychical researcher, a refugee from Hungary named Nandor Fodor. Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research, an organization whose specialty was researching reports of supernatural phenomena. Fodor, a true believer, prevailed on Alma to become a subject for his research under the auspices of the Institute. She assented.

And so the strange tale began.

Alma and her family were not the only Londoners having these disquieting experiences. Similar instances were being reported by a number of other people, including one who claimed he was being bedeviled by a talking mongoose. Summerscale illuminates the zeitgeist that informs the background of all this:

Many Britons had turned to spiritualism in the 1920s because of the losses of war, and many were turning to it now for fear of a conflict to come. Spiritualist seances offered a sense of wonder and intimacy rarely found in the Church of England, where attendances were falling so fast that the Archbishop of Canterbury had appointed  a committee to investigate the allure of the rival faith.

Naturally the times were rife  with charlatans looking for ways to fleece the gullible. As a news organ of the time reported,

‘Never have fortune-tellers, horoscope-casters, crystal ball gazers, teacup-twisters and fakers had so many mugs or made so much money.’

If this sounds as though it would make a lively retelling, it does.

Summerscale makes note of the number of literary works that, in subsequent years, took up the theme of ghostly goings-on, sometimes to great effect. Among them were The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Carrie by Stephen King, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier. (That last one was particularly scary; it was made into a movie with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, that intermixed sex and death in a way that made me want to run screaming from the premises.)

My recommendation? Read it, but during the daytime, in a well lit room.

Alma Fielding

 

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Latest entries in three long running mystery series of which I am inordinately fond (good grief…)

June 13, 2021 at 8:39 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

Well, gosh, I can hardly believe that we’re already up to Number 27 in the Inspector Banks series. It seems like only yesterday when the first in the series, Gallows View (1987), came out. My library buddy Marge and I scarfed it up at once, and have remained more or less faithful throughout. A glance at the listing on the StopYoureKillingMe site shows the accolades this series has deservedly garnered.

So – What about this one? The dual plots involve the shady dealings of a developer and the disappearance of Ray Cabbot’s lover Zelda. (Ray is the father of Banks’s colleague Annie Cabbot.) Of the two, the latter is the more compelling. It’s overall a reliably good yarn, especially for those of us who have been hanging out with Banks and his circle for over  two decades. We’re updated on his family news, and as usual, his amazingly wide ranging musical tastes are precisely noted, as in this sentence:

The Bach finished, and Banks switched to Xuefei Yang playing music by Debussy, Satie, and others arranged for guitar.

This latter is of particular interest, as he’s trying to learn to play that instrument, with a little help from his rock musician son Brian.

Not spectacular, but enjoyable and involving nonetheless.
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Reading the Guido Brunetti novels is, for me, a situation similar to what I described above regarding the Alan Banks books. And this is an even longer running series: Transient Desires is number 30!

I recall how back in the 1990s, we had difficulty getting these books. They were coming to us from overseas – Donna Leon was at the time living in Venice – and they arrived here erratically and in no particular order. U.S. publishers didn’t think they’d be of interest to American readers. A police procedural set in Venice? A detective who’s a totally straight arrow and a devoted family man to boot? Who wants to read that?

We do. Especially when the novels are so beautifully written and so artfully conceived.

Anyway, I thought this entry was an especially good one. One night, two young men in a motorboat leave two even younger American tourists, who have been badly injured, at the docking area of a hospital. The men then flee before anyone can note their identity. It’s a good example of a case that seems to be about one thing, but turns out to be about something else entirely.

Meanwhile, we get lovely scenes of the Brunetti family dining together and having lively discussions on a variety of subjects. Guido and Paola’s offspring, Chiara and Raffi, are approaching adulthood, seemingly with the same effortless grace and integrity they’ve observed over the years in their parents.

And Venice, that troubled and glorious place, is, as always, like a character in the narrative, in and of itself – a marvelous and mysterious entity. (I highly recommend the Smithsonian Associates webinar Venice: 1000 Years of History.)
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What great TV the Bill Slider series would make. They could lift the dialog right from the books themselves.

Some examples:

Slider and his partner Atherton are searching the house of a murder victim. Eric Lingoss, a personal trainer, was a health nut as well as a fitness fanatic. At one point, while rummaging through rummaging through Lingoss’s cabinets, a container of Omega Three supplement falls out and lands on Atherton’s head. This exchange follows, initiated by Slider’s inquiry:

“Are you hurt?”

“Super fish oil injuries. The man’s a health nut.”

“The body is a temple,” Slider reminded him.

“Up to a point. Let he who is without sin bore the pants off everyone else.”

And later, this:

“Did you know,” said Atherton, as they turned into Lime Grove, “that A Tale of Two Cities was first serialized in two English newspapers?”

“Really? Which ones?”

It was the Bicester Times, it was the Worcester Times.”

This exchange prompts an inquiry about Atherton’s Significant Other, who’s currently out of town:

Slider looked at him. “When is Emily coming back?”

“Sunday. Why?”

“You need  someone to take the edge off you.”

You don’t understand what it’s like, having curatorship of a magnificent brain,” Atherton complained.

Well, none of this is very serious, but it is fun to  read. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is famously fond of puns and other forms of humor. Though every shot doesn’t hit the mark, enough off them do so that the reader is given plenty to smile about.

This series features a long story arc involving Slider’s personal life, so it’s advisable to being at the beginning. (Orchestrated Death is the first.) Current wife Joanna, an orchestral violinist, is in the final stages of pregnancy. Inevitably, the novel concludes with the birth of their second child, a daughter. Slider has two older children from his first marriage, so it’s all very modern, and a lot of fun to follow.

Oh, and the investigation is interesting, too, tougher than usual and all the more satisfying when it’s successfully resolved.

Peter Robinson

Donna Leon

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

 

 

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The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

June 9, 2021 at 2:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Published in 1963, this is a strange, most intriguing little book. The time is the early 1960s. The place is the Desert Southwest, more specifically the border between California and Arizona. Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, is traveling this route home to his family in Phoenix. The occasion is the upcoming wedding of his niece.

When he sees a young girl by the side of the road, he stops for her. She is desperate  for a ride to Phoenix. Feeling that her situation is deeply unsafe, he agrees to let her come with him.

The heavy hand of fate is poised above this irrevocable  act…

The background to this story consists of escalating social and political turmoil of the 1960s. Hughes describes this strife as the eyewitness that she was. Her depiction of the desperation of a pregnant teenager is especially vivid. It occurred to me while reading this compelling novel  that I didn’t recall ever reading about this explosive issue in a work of fiction actually written during that time.

In these pages you will find a word that I for one had never before encountered: ‘aborticide.’

And yet…there is grace in Hughes’s writing, especially when she is describing the desert landscape:

This was the desert as it should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had  been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom.The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermilion, and the brush bloomed yellow  as forsythia.

No one who has seen the bleak desert terrain suddenly burst into wild color will ever forget the sight.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s best known work of fiction is probably In a Lonely Place. This is no doubt because of the fact that it was made into a great film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

I tried to read that book but couldn’t – I don’t remember why. But The Expendable Man was an entirely different story. I couldn’t put it down. There are many twists and turns in this story; possibly the most surprising one concerns Hugh himself. However, some things about him remain constant throughout: his courage, and his integrity.

This was Hughes’s final work of fiction.

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About Robertson Davies

May 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm (books)

  I was already an admirer of Stacey Abrams when I encountered her interview in the May 9 issue of the New York Times Book Review. In it, she sings the praises of the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, in particular his novel What’s Bred in the Bone. She concludes her brief but enthusiastic commentary by saying, “Rarely has anyone heard of him or the novel, which is a shame.”

I’ve heard of him! While I’ve not read What’s Bred in the Bone, the second novel in the Cornish Trilogy, I have read the three novels that constitute the Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. This was a while back. I remember enjoying them greatly. (Davies has a gratifyingly extensive Wikipedia entry.)

Davies died in 1995, at the age of 82. His last novel, The Cunning Man, came out the previous year. When I finished reading it, I recall that I closed my eyes and sent up a brief prayer of thanks, that someone could still write superb novels like this one.

I haven’t read anything by Robertson Davies in quite some time. Now I think I’ll read What’s Bred in the Bone.

Thanks, Stacey!

I love this picture of Robertson Davies. He resembles a magus. If memory serves, it captures, to some extent, the spirit that imbues his fiction.

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Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber – coming soon

April 28, 2021 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books)

I was not planning to do any blogging today, but as soon as I opened the Style  section of today’s Washington Post, I knew that I had to. This is because Ron Charles has written a full length review of Joan Silber’s latest book, Secrets of Happiness. It appears to be a mostly positive review. I say ‘appears’ because I don’t want to read it too closely. I want the contents to surprise and gratify me when I have the book in my hands.

Now I’m fully aware that one’s favorite author may not always thrill her devoted reader. But I’m not too worried. I consider Joan Silber to be a superb practitioner of the art of fiction. Secrets of Happiness apparently consists of a series of linked stories. Silber employs this device brilliantly in Ideas of Heaven, a book I’ve read three times and will probably read again, I love it that much.

As for Secrets of Happiness, its publication date is Tuesday of next week, May 4. This is a minor gripe I have with the publishing and media industries, this tendency of reviewers to whip you up into a frenzy of reader’s desire, only to find that the object of that desire is not yet available to the general public. (Also, as of this writing, it is not yet on order at the local library. Feel free to request that it be ordered.)

Oh well. I can wait. I can happily, buoyantly wait.

Joan Silber

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A Worse Place Than Hell: How The Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John Matteson

March 26, 2021 at 1:17 am (Book review, books, History)

This handsome youth is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In the course of his military service in the Union Army, he was wounded on three separate occasions. Afterwards, having made it through this harrowing experience, he vowed to enter the practice of law. He was not only interested in becoming a lawyer, but was equally interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the profession.

In this photo, Holmes appears composed and confident. He was not that way at all by the time his service ended. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. But he had seen terrible things that could never be forgotten. They affected the entire remainder of his long life.

As far as can be known, Holmes regarded his survival as mere happenstance— confirming, not disrupting, his sense of the universe as a place of inscrutable, mindless forces. If it had any effect on his thinking at all, the wounding at Antietam more stoutly convinced Holmes, already a religious doubter, that the world had neither plan nor reason. The power that drove the world could be neither understood nor appeased. Randomness had become God.

Holmes went on to become one of the most distinguished Supreme Court Judges this country has known. He also served in that capacity for a very long time – just under thirty years. This record remains unbroken.

In A Worse Place Than Hell, John Matteson describes some of these terrible things in excruciating detail. I had to force myself to read some passages. But I felt that I had to. For one thing, this was such a compelling narrative and so beautifully written. For another, it was such a huge part of this country’s past, and therefore, of my past. I have heard it said that the Civil War was America’s Iliad. It seems to me an apt comparison.

The lives of four other individuals are delineated in this book.   Louis May Alcott came to Washington to work in the hospitals where wounded soldiers were treated.

She told herself, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.” She went back to her room “resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

Walt Whitman did likewise, although he worked at a different location from Alcott. There is no evidence that they ever encountered one another.

Here is another picture of Whitman, taken when he was younger. I was struck by this image, having only seen him as an elderly, heavily bearded sage.

Whitman was a big-hearted man of very modest means, with not much in the way of tangible effects to give to these sick and wounded young men. So he did what he could:

The poet gave almost every form of sustenance: blackberries, peaches, lemons, preserves, pickles, milk, wine, brandy, tobacco, tea, underclothing, and handkerchiefs all passed into the hands of his grateful boys. He wrote countless letters and read aloud, both from his own poetry and from whatever material a soldier might fancy. It seemed to Whitman, however, that the most precious gift he gave lay in “the simple matter of physical presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism.”

Arthur Fuller was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard Divinity school. A gentle soul who yearned to ‘do something for my country,’ Fuller became chaplain to to the Sixteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861.

He came from a distinguished family. Margaret Fuller was his sister. His full name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, and yes, R. Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, was his grandson.

Arthur Fuller’s brother Richard wrote his biography in 1864. It is available on the Internet Archive.

It opens thus:

HERE is a natural curiosity to trace a stream to its source — to follow it back to the hills from whose bosom it first springs to life-. The more noble the flow of its current, the more beneficent its waters, in opening paths to inland navigation or furnishing food for man, so much the keener is curiosity to trace it to the crystal fountain of its origin. The undiscovered source of the Nile was for centuries the theme of speculation. Inquirers, after the ancient method, propounded this practical question to the oracles of reason, and drew from them the enigmatical responses of theory ; never apparently thinking of the solution, which modern empiricism has reached, by actually threading back the stream, and thus working out the safe result of observation.

Human life, like the river, may attract little public notice in its playful early course, when prattling among the parent hills, or leaping in gay cascades on its downward way, to swell, eventually, into the graver, deeper current of manhood. But if, as its waters gather head, they furnish a spectacle of natural beauty in their flow or fall, or bestow public blessings in banks made green and fruitful, or bountiful fisheries, or bear upon their back the burdens of navigation, or attract attention by the glory of their exit into the sea, symbolizing the issue of life for time into the ocean of eternity, — then men turn their steps back to the early stream, and search out, in its source and surroundings, every presage of its destiny.

How I yearn to read more of such lovely, old-fashioned prose! And in the service of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a courageous and immensely appealing man.

And finally, John Pelham, a young tearaway from Alabama who became a first rate artillery officer. Not only that, he astonished his fellow soldiers with acts of brazen, almost inhuman bravado on the battlefield.

John G. White of the Second Maryland Infantry outdid even [J.E.B.] Stuart in his appreciation. To him, Pelham was nothing less than “some god of battle.” But in an instant, a battle can turn a god to dust.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Arthur Fuller, John Pelham. These five individuals are the linchpins of this narrative. There is plenty of description of battles also, especially of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Much of it was difficult to read.

Men killed with cold, unthinking hatred— hatred for the war, for the enemy, for the miserable fate that had led them here, hatred perhaps above all for themselves. Many of the participants who told of it later, even though they had seen the slaughter with their own eyes, could not believe the heartbreaking truths that they were telling.

Heartbreaking is exactly the right word. I experienced that sensation over and over as I read this book. Yet I think that, at least from my perspective, One owes it to these mean to learn of what they went through, to acknowledged both the heroism and the horror of this brutal war.

  This book is superb. I’ve been reading a great deal of history lately, yet the stories contained in  A Worse Place Than Hell – the words are Lincoln’s; the full quotation is “If There Is a Worse Place Than Hell, I Am In It” – will remain with me the longest.

They watched as “the sun set in the smoke of battle,” a sight that, for some of them, surpassed anything they had ever imagined. Now and then a shell would explode against the sky, ironically forming “the most beautiful wreaths” of color. As the sound of the artillery rolled on, the heavens darkened, and the blood-red sun went down, Chaplain Hartsock thought “the orb of day” wore “a fitting appearance” as it looked down “upon the crimson tide that flowed from American veins.”

 

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February 18, 2021 at 5:08 pm (Book review, books)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

 

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Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist) by [Min Jin Lee]

 

 

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This month, I’ve had the pleasure of presenting two programs of book talks for a local organization of which I’m a member. The  first session occurred at the beginning of this month; the second, this past Monday.

Each was accompanied by a book list. Here’s the first one:

FIFTEEN FAVORITES 2020!

FICTION

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami

OLD LOVEGOOD GIRLS by Gail Godwin

MYSTERY

DEATH IN DELFT by Graham Brack

DEATH IN BRITTANY and MURDER ON BRITTANY SHORES by
Jean-Luc Bannalec

A CHRISTMAS RESOLUTION by Anne Perry

ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiiths

CRISIS by Felix Francis

A STUDY IN SCARLET by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

NONFICTION

JIM THOMPSON: THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY by William Warren

THE DEEPEST SOUTH OF ALL: TRUE STORIES FROM NATCHEZ,
MISSISSIPPI by Richard Grant

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: A QUEST TO FIND AND SAVE THE
WORLD’S LARGEST OWL by Jonathan C. Slaght

CROSS OF SNOW: A LIFE OF HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW by
Nicholas A. Basbanes

This is the second:

2020 BEST BOOKS – II

Fiction

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter

Crime fiction

Wife of the Gods and The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich
The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner
Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas
The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

Nonfiction

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin
The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence                             by Becky Cooper

Children’s

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! By Ryan T. Higgins

Wherever I’ve written at any length about one of the above titles, I’ve provided a link. And I’d like to append some comments here:

I may not have reviewed Laila Lalami’s book in this space, but I did facilitate a discussion of this excellent novel for a book group I attend some months ago. It was a good discussion; I highly recommend The Other Americans for book groups as well as solitary readers.

In Death in Delft, the reader meets an appealing protagonist called Master Mercurious. He is a clergyman and an academic attached to the University of Leiden in what is now The Netherlands. Being as it’s the 17th century, we  get to encounter the painter Vermeer and the scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek as well. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

I know Louise Penny has legions of fans devoted to her Armand Gamache series . These novels are usually set in Quebec; however, the events of All the Devils Are Here take place in Paris. That change of venue is one of the reasons I elected to read this novel. Penny doesn’t always work for me, especially as regards the cast of characters that inhabit the village of Three Pines. There were things about this series entry that bothered me as well, but on the whole, I enjoyed it. I especially appreciated being back in Paris, if only by way of someone else’s story – sigh….

I recently reread The Stranger Diaries for the Usual Suspects mystery book discussion group. This is an outstanding novel; I could hardly put it down this time around.

And speaking of mysteries (and when am I not speaking of mysteries), Kwei Quartey is a new and, for me, very welcome discovery. Wife of the Gods is the first entry in the Darko Dawson series The Missing American marks the start of a new series featuring private investigator Emma Djian. I’ve learned many fascinating facts about life in Ghana, Dr. Quartey’s native land. (The Missing American has just been nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel.)

And speaking of historical mysteries, Some Danger Involved was recommended to me by my friend Angie, an astute and discerning reader of crime fiction. This is the first in a series featuring private investigator Cyrus Barker and his newly hired assistant Thomas, Llewelyn. The action takes place in late 19th century London and concerns that city’s thriving (but perpetually nervous, with good reason) Jewish community. My inner Judaism Checker was attuned to the author’s religious references and especially to his use of the Yiddish vernacular. Everything was spot on; moreover, the atmosphere was wonderfully evoked and characters, believable and appealing.

Finally, a word about Pachinko. I only read this novel because it was a book club selection. I am deeply grateful to this book club (AAUW Readers). Pachinko is one of those old style novels that opens up an entire world and peoples it with credible and often fascinating characters. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary with which to heap praise on Min Jin Lee’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of mainstream fiction that I’ve read in years.

Towards the conclusion of the second set of book talks, several of the participants brought up trends in contemporary fiction that they wanted to discuss. One person bemoaned the tendency of narratives to abruptly go back and forth in time – “I had to take notes, to know where I was!” A second reader chimed in with the observation that a change of narrators was occurring more frequently and could be likewise confusing. And finally, there is the tendency to switch from the first person to the third – with occasionally  the second making a brief, unwelcome appearance.

I really enjoyed this exchange of views! It was a welcome reminder of my days as an English major in college and graduate school. In fact, the whole experience was extremely rewarding. I am grateful to the participants for making it so.
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Oh, and I almost forgot – the children’s book We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! was just  for fun:

 

 

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