Emily's Book Reviews

Consequence - A Memoir

By Eric Fair

Macmillan Audio | 2016

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

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I had visions of the snarling Jack Nickolson spewing out his classic, “You can’t handle the truth,” to hard-driving, well-meaning prosecuting attorney Tom Cruise, as I listened to disk after truth-telling disk recording a tale that literally turned my stomach. I wasn’t sure if I could “handle it” –even on so remote a level. But I listened as a kind of atonement for living my easy life, and my no-risk “support” of our servicemen and auxiliary personnel who endured unspeakable life changing traumas.

I listened as the process of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) unfolded layer by layer inviting the audience to become witness to the evolution of a human being. I listened to the crisp, clipped, truncated, staccato-like word-bullets that were transferred from page to disk projecting “just the facts,” – (read by the author) because the feelings, the raw emotions  ̶   had to be snuffed out and dismissed.

Eric Fair was a civilian interrogator at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and in Fallujah.  He wound up there having been rejected by the military because of a heart condition, and rejected, also, by the Seminary School at Princeton for reasons not quite clear. The contrast between his inner being and the type of “work-person” seemingly required for his job is the grisly  tale of this book.

Having enlisted in the Army in 1995, he fortuitously discovered an Arab Language program which eventually gave him the rare expertise that was in such demand in Iraq. His Presbyterian/Military family background growing up in depressed-era Bethlehem, Pennsylvania gave impetus to his semi-conflicted, unfulfilled dream of becoming either a Police Officer or a Pastor.

This is a glorified “confessional” from a deeply religious individual who was a participant in one of the most dehumanizing torture events in the history of our country, and an indictment of the “system” that not only allowed it to take place, but encouraged it, and refused to apologize for it, rationalizing it merely as justification during warfare.

In 2004, Fair was an employee of CACI, a private contractor supplying interrogation services at the prison. He describes the prison atmosphere as chaotic and disorganized with insufficient personnel and supplies. But, nonetheless, Fair participated in and witnessed sub-human physical abuse to prisoners and in many cases innocent detainees ̶ acts that he describes so graphically as to literally have a physical effect on me, as a listener. These techniques were executed in a robotic state of numbness as the procedures were standard for the job.

In 2007, Fair optioned to confess in detail, each of the acts for which his ever pressing sense of guilt was causing nightmares, sleepless nights, shortness of temper, and a myriad of signs that he was in a state of severe emotional distress. He “spilled the beans” to a lawyer from the Department of Justice and two agents from the Army’s Criminal Justice Investigation Command, documenting his account with pictures, letters, names, locations, descriptions of techniques.  Instead of having his instincts validated, he was told, “We torture people the right way, using the right procedures and approved techniques.” He was not prosecuted.

The nightmares got worse, his began to drink excessively,  his marriage was severely affected, his heart condition worsened to the point where he required and received a transplant, he had suicidal ideation, and in the middle of all this, having been informed that his best friend in Iraq  was killed by a suicide bomber, he chose to accept another job in Iraq for a year with the National Security  Agency. The money was good.

Fair brings the listener into what he came to believe as “torture chambers," and also into the life of testosterone and camaraderie as we join him in the snug-buddy core of his daily life. Interviewed by NPR and several other outlets since the launching of the book (April 2016) he makes no bones about his eternal struggle with living with guilt. It leaves the listener with a sense that it is a personal responsibility to “handle this truth” and to not dismiss the existential issues that are so foundational in this expose.

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BEGIN AGAIN

By Julia Cameron

New York : TarcherPerigee, | 2016 | 304 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen, M.A., M.S.

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It’s  almost twenty-five years later, and the JULIA CAMERON  industry continues to flourish. With a title like this: “It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again,”  its appeal reaches out to people way over 30 who figure they could “do” life better.

To justify my use of the word “industry,”:  Cameron has created  workbooks, prayer books, date books, meditations, movies, musicals,  memoirs, fiction, poetry, plays, etc, so numerous as to discourage listing – making Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker.

If you don’t know Julia Cameron, be sure not to admit it in circles dedicated to self improvement, creativity, artistic expression, dogged self-discipline, the writing life and spirituality. Her original treatise, “The Artist’s Way,”  published in 1992 is the landmark bible for subjects dealing with all of the above. Those for whom its content nurtured  major life improvement, remain in worshipful gratitude to this woman, born in 1948 and briefly  (1976-1977) married to Martin Scorscese.

If you’ve come this far, it’s only fair that I report on her latest, the subtitle of which is “Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond.” a rehash with additives of the original ARTIST’S WAY – successfully geared to an older population of enthusiastic wannabees. (folks who “wanna” have the most meaningful, creative, overall satisfying  life possible)

For readers not yet familiar with Cameron’s signature technique, her “Morning Pages,” assignment has been assiduously followed by her acolytes since the concept was first brought to light in THE ARTIST’S WAY. Her followers joyfully  (or sometimes “not-so” ) put a writing instrument (definitely NOT a computer)  to three   8 ½ by 11 “pages” daily as part of their awakening routine following the toothbrushing, face washing, and whatever other dreary-eyed ablutions in which they are engaged. This is the “Pitcher’s Pen” of warm-up writing and is rightfully hailed by its many fans as freeing, inspiring, revealing, and effective as a valuable kind of introspective connection with self. The words need not make sense—they can be jots, notes, fragments, run-on sentences, stories, feelings, thoughts, a grammarian’s nightmare –  just as long as the writing experience is representative of the writer at that moment in time. To many, it has become an addictive activity. 

Additionally,  in this book, Cameron has added three more “basic tools.”  (tasks) for discovering “meaning,”  all of  which require the reader’s willingness  -- nay, eagerness! -- to comply: the writing of Memoir. “a weekly guided process of triggering memories and visiting life in several year increments;”    Artist Dates, “a once weekly, solo expedition to explore something fun;” and  Walking,  “a twenty minute solo walk, twice weekly, without a dog, friend or cell phone, ”    activities which , if practiced  in earnest, can certainly put one on a path to a spiritual high, especially for individuals on the so-called back nine of their lives.  Speaking of which, some of the less than enthusiastic comments  about the book are from mid-lifers, and “sandwich generation” folks  who feel unrepresented when they are thrown into the same bucket as retirees and seniors.                                                                                                        

The book is divided into what is tantamount to a curriculum for a twelve week course – each week focusing on random themes that enhance creativity and the exultation of life, i.e. – wonder, freedom, connection, purpose, honesty, humility, resilience, joy, motion, vitality, adventure and faith. Each chapter includes several tasks, a weekly checkup of the reader’s adherence to the program and  anecdotal material, much of the latter of which seems to serve to bulk up its 264 pages. We get it, Julia.

So for those “embarking on their second act,” this is Cameron’s answer to “What next?” even as it answers her own “what next?” oeuvre of products for sale. Cynical? Perhaps. That can be attributed to my being awash in self help books, many of which actually DO serve their purpose. Frankly, I’m for anything that works for the many and diverse “you”s of this world. Cameron’s steady and enduring message  and specific tools for taking responsibility for one’s own creative stride towards self fulfilment is a noble and positive message put “out there” for the universe to accept.



The Art of Memoir

By Mary Karr

Harpers | 2015 | 256 pages
Reviewed by Emily Rosen

I have been teaching memoir writing workshops for the past 15 years. For all those years, I’ve been defending the genre against the elite literati, for whom only fiction and poetry hold any true artistic value

The phrase “good writing is good writing – whether on a tombstone or a love note or an ad for ED pills,” rings hollow to the tone-deaf guardians of invented stories and some

kinds of poetry.

To them I say, “Get over it!”
 Memoirs are here to stay and they share the same ratio of exquisite soul-searing inspiration to mundane claptrap as any other genre. And Mary Karr is the go-to person to point out all the nuances that confer to it, legitimacy and, as appropriate, eminence and artistic value.

Simply stated, she avers: ..”It’s from the need to capture the shared connections between us that symphonies were invented. Ditto memoirs.”

    Kirkus referred to the “Sassy Texas wit” of the multi published Syracuse University literature professor, who can legitimately rest on the “laurels” received from each of her three memoirs, The Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit.- and five non memoir books. (the thing about “memoir” is that one can write them in the same prodigious quantity as Joyce Carol Oates can produce her endless fiction ---  and still not reveal every aspect of a life ) ---  Indeed, one does hear echoes of the late Texas wit,  Molly Ivins,  in the “voice” of Karr who, though disparaging writers who quote from themselves, succinctly  tells us, “If I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have more Nabokov in here.”

She is a stickler for “truthiness,” (thanks for that word, Stephen Colbert)  “wholly opposing” making things up, but nonetheless is “wholly” cognizant of the tricks of memory and inadvertent misstatement, covering that issue in all of its possible iterations. Citing some of the more reviled examples of “corrupted” memoirs, James Frey’s a Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea among them, she has little tolerance for its base falsifications.

“Carnality … by that I mean, can you apprehend it through the five senses,” is possibly the most salient of her writer-tips.  “A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye, the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh…Every memoir should brim over with physical experiences ...the smell of garlicy gumbo,  your hand in an animal’s fur, …” 

Of course, that goes for good writing in any genre.

But it is “interiority” that makes a book rereadable, says Karr, …” translation: Great. Your connections to most authors (Nabokov and a few others aside) rests on how you may identify with them.. the better memoirist organizes a life story around that inner enemy – a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or a plot engine.”  

In my own classes, I call this “a theme.”  It digs deep into the psychic well – and who hasn’t experienced some inner conflict in the course of a lifetime? Conflict is deep in the reservoir of the memoir, even as it is the roaring engine of great novels.

Another concern addressed by Karr that is germane only to the memoir, is how to handle the subordinate characters, that is, the people in your life about whom truth telling is essential. Karr chooses to come clean and shows her manuscript to them, accompanied by a rationale and offering to use a pseudonym. One can only imagine the conversations that have taken place in this regard.

Note to readers (like me) who read books with pencil and paper at hand: You will want to record the many memoirs she recommends and those from which she quotes juicy excerpts. To name just a few, two being new* to me:  Harry Crews, Mary McCarthy, Kathryn Harrison, Maya Angelou, Frank Conroy, Saint Augustine*, Michael Herr*, (Viet Nam War memoir, Dispatches, 1977), Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, Vladimir Nabokov.

Despite its occasional redundancy and tilt towards bloat, this book will probably take its place with Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird as a writer’s most frequently recommended  “read” and a memoir writer’s “essential.”

If you’re looking for heavy plotting and lightning action or a thrilling who-dun-it, this book is not for you. But of course, you knew that before you finished my first sentence and probably never made it to the end anyway.



A CURIOUS MIND

By Brian Grazer

Simon and Schuster | 2015
October 1, 2015

How do you rate curiosity on a scale of human virtues – and would it ever occur to you to consider using curiosity as a centerpiece for a book? And would a reader stick to a book in which curiosity is the so-called hero? 

You’ve come this far—stick with me for a short while.

Brian Grazer, a successful Hollywood producer has turned his “hobby” into "A Curious Mind," a highly readable book on that subject.

His hobby? Engaging in what he calls “curiosity conversations,” with the most accomplished people on the planet.

Just think about the following people, when you consider the value of curiosity:  Salk, Euclid, Freud, Columbus, Jobs, Gates, Edison, Einstein, Guttenberg, King, (Martin Luther)  Ford, and of course so many thousands of others.

We would still be living in caves and huntin’ and fishin’ and wearing clothes made of leaves and bark – had it not been for people who were curious. (and regarding that small voice I hear squeaking in the background,  “Maybe we’d have been better off,” – I’ll take you on in another column)

“The goal of (my book) is simple,” writes Grazer, “I want to show you how valuable curiosity can be…and remind you how much FUN it can be and to show you … how you can use it.”

Grazer’s grandma encouraged his curiosity to the point where he was not averse to listening to (read that: eavesdropping on) other people’s conversations,  which actually is how he became one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, a story he tells at the beginning of the book, that turned out to be the foundation of his career.

Interesting people make interesting stories—and Hollywood is nothing but stories. Grazer’s understanding of this concept sharpened as he moved from delivery boy at Warner’s studio to mogul-producer; A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, and many more.

For over 35 years, Grazer has been tracking down people “in,” but mostly “out” of show biz with requests for a sit-down talk to last about an hour, calling them, writing letters, badgering assistants, often waiting years for appointments – in order to get their stories, to find out what made them who they are. Mostly, he used their “stories” for his own edification, but often they became the bedrock of his movie or TV inspirations.

“Over time, I discovered that I am curious in a particular way…  in what I call ‘emotional’ curiosity. I want to understand what makes people tick. I want to …. connect with a person’s attitude and personality, their work, their challenges, their accomplishments.” And this is not to negate his broader curiosity about how things work.

The end of the book has a 27 page listing of people with whom Grazer has conversed , including well known and lesser known writers, artists, scientists, business moguls, politicians, “creatives,” (my word) sports figures, celebrities, academics, miscreants, “plain” people – you name it.

In the book you will learn who is a “good interview,” and who is a “stonewaller.” You actually get clear insights into personality and motivation, including Grazer’s own.

On a personal note, I thank him for validating my own propensity for being what my family calls, “Mrs. District Attorney,” as I struggle to keep my curiosity about people somewhat in check, recognizing a need for social boundaries. On the other hand, a journalist is a journalist, is a journalist.

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Memoir of An Independent Woman: An Unconventional Life Well Lived

By Tania Grossinger

Skyhorse Publishing Company N.Y.C. | 293pgs
June 1, 2013
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Get ready for a fast read,  an “A” list of dropped names, a colorful cast of just plain characters,  unsolved mysteries, adventure, family secrets, love with a married man, insightful psychological revelations, and God bless us, sex too. 

Tania Grossinger, author of  “Growing Up at Grossinger’s” and  recently, “Jackie and Me; A Very Special Friendship,” has penned her latest, “Memoir Of An Independent Woman: An Unconventional Life Well Lived,”  In defiance of the wagging tongues it will surely inspire.

Invited  by her cousin by marriage,  the famous “Jennie G,”  to live at “the hotel” in New York’s Catskill mountains,  Tania’s widowed mother, Karla, was given the job of “social director” at Grossinger’s, the mecca for both east and west coast talents in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Made in many ways to feel  like a poor relative, Tania llved in her head, made friends with the “headliners”  who  brought hoards of city people to a week-end, or weeks or a summer of overindulgence and besotted nights of drowned out ecstasies and miseries. 

Buddy Hackett, Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Robinson, Rocky Marciano,  Elizabeth Talyor, Richard Burton, Hugh Hefner, Betty Friedan, Johnny Carson, Timothy Leary, Ayn Rand, JFK, -- just a short list of the people in Tania’s early hotel life and later as a publicist for Playboy Magazine and “The Feminine Mystique.”

She was a successful Public Relations Consultant, and a  Freelance Travel Writer as a result of her many world wide trips which also led to her being  a  frequent talk show guest. She could book “talent” onto any of the coveted TV  morning and late night programs with a simple dial of a phone.

And just when you’re beginning to think : “This is really entertaining hedonistic fun, but …”  Grossinger makes the turn and gets serious about evaluating  the core meaning and influences on her life.  Growing up without a father, in a sense competing for the attention of her beautiful mother who seemed never to be there for her, and although successful in each of her own endeavors, never quite feeling that she “got it right.”

Grossinger is generous in her openness about her feelings and motivations as well as about her flaws and shortcomings. Grappling with the causes of some of her bad choices, including her failed marriage and subsequent cynicism and distrust of relationships,  she closely examines  her own femininity and lack of calling to motherhood. The book, in fact, is introduced to the reader as a series of letters to her imaginary  daughter whom she has named Natasha. Admittedly a literary gimmick, it is her way of handling her very seriously considered  decision to remain childless.

There is a time in every life for a  review, a tally, a conscious  evaluation of the choices made, and the roads not taken. Grossinger does this with her life in a somber setting of mourning, grief, vocational renewal and a confident defiance that she indeed did it “her way.” 

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A GOOD MAN: Rediscovering My Father

By Mark Shriver

Henry Holt & Co. | 265 pages | 2012
July 2012
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 “Good,”  is such a banal word. In our every day lexicon, it lands somewhere between an “A-” and a “B-“  and doesn’t really delineate anything about the descriptor.  And yet, as attributed to Sargent Shriver it applies, in its inherent humility and lack of the spectacular. The word “good” is so apt here, as to elevate it – the very word itself – to heights of low key idolatry – possibly  an oxymoronic observation, but read the book before making that judgment.

“Good” as attributed by his son, Mark, is better than “great.” “The great man is recognized for his civic achievements. The Good Man can be great in that arena too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk, .. with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church, wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion.”

However, If you have a penchant for the surreal, you will know that somewhere in the ”sweet hereafter,” Sargent Shriver and Christopher Hitchins are duking it out over the “greatness of God,” and much as Hitchins might have been the ultimate debater, according to Mark Shriver, his dad will win hands down as a role model in touting the greatness of that deity. Among all else, his life was fueled by his love of God.

Sargent Shriver, known for having launched the Peace Corps, for being a major mover, along with his wife, of the world renowned  Special Olympics, a Vice Presidential Candidate on the  George Mc Govern ticket in 1972, U.S. Ambassador to France, a significant influence in the procurement of voting  and civil rights for all Americans, the spouse of Eunice Kennedy (of THE Kennedys)  and the father of four sons and a daughter, died at the age of 95 in 2011, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. His son Mark pulled him out of the grave, figuratively, to re-examine the qualities that elicited “He was a good man,” almost as a mantra from so many people after his death.

Shriver lived by the trinity of faith, hope and love and his Catholicism with all of its concomitant rituals was paramount in his life. He was joyful and fun loving and his relationship with his wife and kids was story book Cleaver. Competitive only with himself, the man was so well balanced and his values so pure,  that one wonders if he were real and if he had ANY faults.

The first Shrivers settled in Union Mills, Maryland in the 1700s and established a rich family heritage,  a successful farm and  a canning business. But Sarge’s  father  a banker, was forced into bankruptcy during the depression and as Sarge told it  “when financial failure almost destroyed  (my father’s) own sense of personal worth, my parents nonetheless gave me an unforgettable lesson in how to survive financial ruin with grace and courage and class.”

Several  Shriver members, over millennia and decades,  were into politics.  Sarge’s   mother’s family was  Catholic and Confederate and his father’s Union and Protestant.  “His mother had taught him that the Catholic Church and the Shriver family were most important, followed closely by the Democratic Party.” 

Certainly, Mark’s parents lived a fairy tale life, hob nobbing with world leaders, sports heroes,  and church hierarchy, traveling all over the world,  attending spectacular events and being involved in all manner of political dealings on the highest levels. And yet the simple daily game of catch with his kids, their frequent  attendance  at ball games, ( he was a fanatic Orioles booster)  their family picnics and meals and private times together, were more meaningful to Sarge than any of the hoopla of their glamorous lives

If anything was a metaphor for how the elder Shriver lead his life, it was Mark’s story about the time his brother Bobby began to cry when he was hurt playing football with his cousins in Hyannis Port. “Uncle Bobby was standing nearby and said, ‘Kennedys don’t cry!’  Dad heard him but didn’t look his way. Instead, he walked straight toward my brother and lifted him up. ‘Its okay, you can cry! You’re a Shriver. …’  Dad was a team player, (a) loyal political partner and family member, but he could separate his identity from the clan’s internal pressure to achieve greatness….”

The passages about his “loyal lieutenant,”  Richard Franklin Ragsdale, “Rags” to all,  “Top Man,” as described by Mark, were another giveaway into Sarge’s character and the depth of his  capacity for friendship and humility.

And the notes and letters he took the time to write to his kids, for all kinds of occasions never failing to tag them with warm assurances of his love, were the most precious of Sarge’s legacy to them.  He wasn’t merely an articulator of all things good, he was a firm believer in “doing something about it.”

In the end, Mark describes his father’s dignified and sad descent into Alzheimer’s  (“I’m doing the best I can with what God gave me,” he’d say)  and the family that rallied to become “Love Givers,” rather than “Care Givers”

That  Mark chose a path other than Sarge’s beloved  Peace Corps after graduation, and that Mark’s daughter Molly chatted up the goalie of her opposing team in a fierce competition,  that brother Bobby was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana causing the paparazzis to swarm in front of their house  in anticipation of reporting a delicious scandal, -- none of these events caused Sarge to lose his cool, to withhold his love or to do other than have a calm life-lesson discussion with each of the subjects.

Don’t look for literary passages. in this book. Some of it is somewhat redundant, but the subject carries it to “Goodness.” And there is no doubt that such a “Good Man” as Sargent Shriver,  “is hard to find.”

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HOME

By Toni Morrison

Alfred A. Knopf | 2012 | 145 pages
July 2012
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Toni Morrison is much better than “Home,” her tenth novel, an uneven homage to her universal theme, the residual and everlasting effects of slavery in all of its various betrayals of human dignity.

This slim  (145 pages) book about Frank Smart Money (Morrison’s bold and symbolic choice of character names is her trademark) and who is  perhaps some distant relation to Macon Milkman Dead, 3rd  in her 1977 masterpiece, The Song of Solomon --- Money being a young African American Korean War veteran, a first to fight in an integrated Army.

A man who is naturally prone to violence, Frank watched his two best friends die in the war, and landing in a mental hospital, he spends his time plotting an escape, an act which turns out to be as easy as a first-grader obtaining a pass to the bathroom. Frank’s life is a constant struggle to exist with dignity as a free man

In his early childhood, Frank witnessed his family being driven from their home and property by hooded men, And now in his early adulthood of the 1950s, he tries to make his way “home”  from Chicago , where integration is more language than reality. He heads back to Lotus, Georgia. “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield” where “there is no future, just long stretches of killing time… no goal other than breathing, nothing to win, … nothing worth surviving for.” He is, nonetheless, determined to return there and to rescue his mentally  challenged  beloved sister. Cee,  (Ycidra)  suffering at the hands of an evil white doctor of eugenics

Not that one is looking for Agatha Christie when reading Morrison, but you won’t find a “can’t wait to pick it up,” plot line in “Home,” which is probably okay, since you can read it in one sitting.  The various characters who inhabit its pages are people you’ve met before and have already had the vitality squeezed out of them. The significant incidents that pile up to suck the juices out of Frank’s life are skimmed as if material posed in response to an essay question on a test.

The scars of war and the inherent horrors to which he was witness, blend into Frank’s adult life even as the scars of his youthful experiences with racism were the bricks of his early life.  A few pages of switching to a personal analysis of both Frank and his sister from the point of view of Frank’s erstwhile girlfriend seemed to me a kind of gratuitous intrusion, after we have been exposed to Frank’s own first person memories inserted randomly into parts of the third person narrative. But perhaps I am being too nit-picky of the Great One.

However, the book is actually rescued from its doldrums by its spectacular magical realism  ending, wherein Frank, with his healed sister at his side, creates a small pocket of retribution for all the symbolic wounds of his life, and in so doing sprays himself with a snippet of hope for his future.

Morrison, who has amassed enough awards and honors to line the streets of her home town of  Lorain, Ohio, is now in her 80s. She is  known for her lyrical language, strong characters, and hard hitting themes, but must have been plumb tired and downright out of sorts when she put this one together. However, she is uniquely too Toni Morrison not to have produced occasional spurts of Morrison Magical prose : “Maniac moonlight  doing the work of absent stars matched his desperate frenzy, lighting his hunched shoulders and footprints left in the snow.” or. “(Frank) …  dreamed a dream dappled with body parts…”, or “Passing through freezing ... scenery, Frank tried to redecorate it, mind-painting giant slashes of purple and X’s of gold on hills, dripping yellow and green on baron wheat fields.” or “Cee stood in the zinc tub … she wanted to linger in cool water while a softly suffering afternoon light encouraged her thoughts to tumble. Regrets, excuses, righteousness, false memory and future plans mixed together or stood like soldiers in line. “  And truth be told, there are enough such lyrical enchantments within its sparse content to make the read worthy of the few hours required to finish it. But too much of the book is banal narration unsuited to the queen of language. I’m sure that by now you have detected a “No, but” tone to this review

Morrison’s iconic literary history is unassailable, beginning with her 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, in which she explored  the black world of Ohio’s  eleven year old Pecola Breedlove. The book deals with the relativism of beauty in a white world, metaphorically, the value of having “blue eyes,”  as well as the unspeakable ripples resulting from incest, issues way ahead of her time

She was nominated for the National Book Award for Sula in 1973  and was hoisted to true star status in 1977 with the publication of what is considered her best book, “Song of Solomon,” wherein  several layers of theme and symbolism weave into a pattern of song, flight, and of course, racial injustice

But if you really want to understand Toni Morrison’s  impact on the world of literature, her short  non fiction (91 pages) yet pithy 1992  “Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and The Literary Imagination,” is  an outspoken critique of such heavyweights as Poe, Melville, Cather and Hemingway and their clueless references to the presence of “blackness” in society, as it is reflected in their works  with metaphors of evil. She challenges writers to rethink their use of language and imagery relating to characters with African backgrounds.

If you are looking for a Toni Morrison fix, the bounty is incalculable. It is everywhere and yours for the reading

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C.G. JUNG – A BIOGRAPHY IN BOOKS

By Sonu Shamdasani

W.W. Norton and Company | 2012 | 224 pages
June 2012
soni shamdasani

First, let’s get physical. This 11 ½ by 10 coffee table book, is, before anything else, an artistic treasure. Your eyes will linger on the front cover for many minutes, before you venture beyond. The heavy high quality paper, the reproductions of color plates and lithographs of treasured writings in every form and, yes, even the heavily inked fragrance within its bindings are all momentary distractions from the actual copy. If ever there was a book to “fondle,” this is it.

Sonu Shamdasani,  considered to be the ultimate authority on Jung, is the Philemon Professor of Jung History at the Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines at University College London. Born in Singapore in 1962, he grew up in England, and first discovered Jung in his teens when traveling through India in search of a guru. There he came across the text for The Secret of The Golden Flower, his first encounter with psychology. Engaged in further study, he concluded that psychology and psychotherapy “was in a mess” and he was determined to figure out how it got that way, thus his immersion in its history.

In this book, we enter the virtual world of Jung’s library, an almost holy place where learning is elevated to a transcendent  experience. This is not only a book of Jung’s writings. It is mostly a book of writings that made Jung the person he became.

The pages, abundantly illustrated with photographs of previously unseen manuscripts, copies of rare first editions, and annotated books by some of Jung’s favorite writers, scholars, and philosophers, are an open sesame to a very private library, and they trace Jung’s intellectual development through the massive readings which lead him to formulate new conceptions of human nature.

Using his training in psychology, as well as his extensive knowledge of Western literature, Jung integrated his study of religion and mythology into a combination of all of those elements, and produced a cohesive psychological oeuvre.

In a sense this book is a mystery as it unravels Jung’s investigative tools: the literary and mythological sources that informed his own fantasies and how his own self reflections were the seeds from which sprung his new psychology.  These pages include reproductions of his notebooks, (many illegible) wherein he wrestled with the symbolism and meaning of alchemy ( any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value), and sought to find connections between science and religion. Other pages include reprints of original manuscripts in German and Swiss.

The opening paragraphs describe Jung’s recurrent dream, about two adjacent houses containing libraries with 16th and 17th century literature, books with strange symbolism, and references to alchemy. That dream, of an unknown library actually became a reality in the discovery of the library of  Martin Bodner, possibly unknown to Jung, but nonetheless a bibliophile radiating the same passion for knowledge  as Jung. This book draws from both of these collections and is likened to a stroll through both libraries.

As far back as his youth Jung had a craving for books and the written word, with an eclectic taste, delving into poetry, religion, drama, travel, and science. When he was 15, he read Goethe’s Faust, happy to have discovered someone who took the devil seriously, recognizing the existence of evil and its mysterious role in the individual psyche.  From Faust, he migrated to Schopenhauer and Kant and was haunted by the concept that all knowledge could not be derived from experience alone, and that another component had to be “things as they were in themselves–and that phenomena” is part of the knowledge base.

He chose to study medicine as a means of making a living, but continued his studies and extra-curricular reading and came to accept the concept of the influence of the unconscious on human personality and behavior. Correcting the “conventional wisdom”  that he had derived his concept of the unconscious from Freud, he noted, ‘I had these thoughts long before I came to Freud. Unconscious is an epistemological (relating to the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge) term deriving from von Hartmann”  (Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) a scholar whose major work, The Philosophy of the Unconscious, was another significant influence on Jung’s thinking).

The text covers much of Jung’s writings and noteworthy concepts and theories, spending much time on his use of fantasy and dreams, his conclusions about archetypes and the shadow side of life, and about the collective unconscious as well as references to his Red Book. The text also includes countless citations of his readings in science and philosophy and literature, with comments on their influences on his thinking.  The footnotes are prodigious and tell their own story.

This is a kaleidoscopic overview of Carl Gustav Jung in all of his professional manifestations. And it feels good, too.

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Fifty Shades Of Grey

By E.L. James

Vintage | 2012 | 528 pages
May 2012

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Does a highly respected on-line literary magazine have a responsibility  to report or comment on a publishing phenomenon?  And if such a phenomenon does not  -- even a teeny tiny bit -- qualify for  the category of “literature,” is “pornographic runaway best seller” a sufficiently credible status to require that it be acknowledged?


   

I struggle with an answer even as I write this, in response to an assignment.

     For anyone who has been holing up in a cave for the past few months, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James and its two follow-up novels (it’s a trilogy) of the continuing saga, have not only occupied top spots on the best seller lists, its author, readers, social impact, and prurient content have (and for this, I say, “thankfully”) almost replaced the badgering, repetitive, unstinting droning of partisan politics.

       Simple in premise, virgin Anastasia Steele, a college student of—if you’ll pardon the irony—literature, interviews high powered executive, drop dead gorgeous Christian Steele, a man in his mid-thirties, for her school publication and she quivers at the sight of him.

    Inconceivably, this man of enormous wealth, power, physical magnetism, and position, (lots of positions)  is somewhat attracted to the plain Jane co-ed, although it is never established and therefore really a stretch, to understand why. But I suppose in this genre, it doesn’t really matter.

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    He deflowers her with no resistance and invites her to engage in a no nonsense sexual arrangement wherein he is contractually the Dominant and she the Submissive. They negotiate the written contract throughout the book, which is otherwise plotless, during which time, they experiment with its stipulations. There is no lead-up to indicate why this otherwise seemingly stable and sane female would relinquish her complete self for the tenuous lure of glamour, opulence, and physical pleasure during the contractual limits of weekends, and the guarantee of a non-permanent relationship. Hmm, really ?

As for Mr. Big Shot, the reasons for his weirdo proclivities, S & M, chains and the like, are never quite analyzed, at least not in the first of the trilogy, however simplistically they are hinted at. Character and motivation are no place seriously explored in these pages.

The set-up is so contrived that it would pass as a myth, if only there were a message. Personally, I love orgasms, the explosive characteristic of which is highlighted herein, page after page. But when scripted descriptions of it land on the pages of a book, with a resounding thud that never seems to go away, allowing no room for other stimulation, then I can only call it a colossal bore.

On the other hand for some, it either feeds a void, or provides voyeuristic pleasure.  Pornography—uh, erotica—sells–and sells and sells.

Predictably, book clubs have cornered the market on copies, and print and broadcast and social network media have devoted vast numbers of pages and hours and text messages to discussions that pose the “why.”  Questions like this keep sociologists and psychologists in business and tend to engender cottage industries of their own.

When the Christian Science Monitor and other somewhat restrained mainstream news outlets recognize the cultural impact that such a rush to readership poses (and by the way, the movie, of course, is forthcoming)  then this is not unlike the Beetles of the ‘60s, or The Harry Potter and Twilight phenomenon that overtook generations of young people.

Fifty Shades, however, with its hyped reliance on sexuality, has infiltrated to mid-lifers and beyond, proving that the gurus of psychology who boost the significance of fantasy in the lives of humans as an eternal staple, are on the mark.  

Initially, this book was self-published in May 2011 and if ever the power of word-of-mouth has proven to be incalculable, this is such an instance.  James is a British mother of two who touts her books as Adult Romance and Love Story. The picture on her website shows a dark haired pixie faced innocent and headlines “Romance, Suspense, Erotica.”  

And surely, despite the hand ringing, nay-saying  and denunciations, that smart lady is smiling–no! Laughing, as the cliché goes, all the way to the bank.   

Is this a matter of sexual deprivation in the millennium years? I thought that had dissipated when Hugh Hefner let loose with his Bunnies, lo those many decades ago. Do women “get off” on reading this stuff, just as guys do when hiding behind a Playboy magazine or watching a porn film? Or perhaps this gives us permission to talk about what we never talk about. Or all of the above?

So, does a highly respected on-line literary magazine have a responsibility to report or comment on a publishing phenomenon such as this?  I ask my readers.

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Greedy Bastards

Dylan Ratigan


Simon and Schuster | January 2012 | 227 pages

March

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Gordon Gekko, you’re chopped liver, toast, a penny ante has-been!!! Our country  is saturated with your clones who have mastered your operative philosophy  and indeed have taken it to soaring heights infecting  society beyond even your wildest dreams.  Dylan Ratigan has “outed” the lot of them. And I can’t believe the Karma  that has enveloped me as I write this review on the very day that an unknown  Greg Smith has plastered Ratigan’s thesis smack on the op-ed page of the New York Times, under the headline, ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” In a nutshell, he says of his former bosses, they are Greedy Bastards and he wants out-of-there. Making money is no sin, he declares, unless you are not giving value in return.

Ratigan, the host of the 4 p.m.. MSNBC “Dylan Ratigan.”  show is probably the least partisan of the anchors in their stable, an equal opportunity political party excoriator. Coming  from CNBC’s Fast Money, The  Call and Closing Bell, and as a managing editor at Bloomberg, he won Journalism’s coveted Gerald Loeb Award for his coverage of the Enron scandal, and is the perfect messenger to deliver this apocalyptic missive.

Spotted with cartoons and graphics, and devoid of footnotes, the book is not likely to find its way onto academic shelves and it could well  have been  titled: “The Oncoming Fall of the Roman – ooops – I mean, The United States:  For Dummies”  His simplistic, pedagogical, clarity makes the book highly readable, and his thesis is lucid and logical. Corruption and wide spread venal knavery exists in every aspect of society and is perpetuated by archaic systems that are highly  resistant  to change. And his heavy handed lament is what he calls “extractionism,” taking money from others without creating anything of value, producing economic growth or improving lives. Ratigan  makes frequent references to VICI, core values that he assumes are universal to any deal or relationship : Visibility, Integrity, Choice, interests.

The book tackles corruption, that is, waste and greed,  in several areas of society: banking, education, health care, energy, international trade, tax policy and the number one system he would like to obliterate and replace is campaign financing.  And who wouldn’t, except six of our “Supremes.” and Citizen’s United, and those with cash cows in their back yard?  His passion regarding the latter has spawned the website www.getmoneyout.com.

Regarding banking, he makes the case that banks should be required to retain more capital and also, that they themselves be required to pay the losses when they place “bad bets.” He dares to suggest that  CEOs and board members of AAA rated financial institutions should not collect  bonus pay on losses caused by their own bad decisions just because the losses were covered by the government. (“us”)

Referring to China’s big trade-war win with their protectionist policies, he quotes Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein,  “Americans acquiesced to this off shoring because it fattened corporate profits, (Wal-Mart, in particular)  lowered consumer prices, and fit neatly with a free trade market consensus among the economic elite,” one of Ratigan’s many examples of short term wins leading to long term economic disaster. “Low wages and poor working conditions in China drive down those in the rest of the world in a “race to the bottom,”

His health care rant takes on the Affordable Health Care Act – “Obamacare”  if you are fulminating about it, and shores up the criticism, “The best possible world for greedy bastards is when government can legally require people to pay fixed prices.” But he goes on to denounce most suggested alternatives. Referencing Singapore’s system, he urges universal mandated catastrophic policies  which are relatively cheap since catastrophes are rare, and he wants all citizens to contribute to a health care savings account of their choice, from birth, monies from that account to be used for routine medical services.

He has much to say  (negative)  about college loans and the “debt for diploma” market, as well as our outdated educational system modeled over a century ago  on the interests of an industrialized society and which is pretty much clueless about our changing needs.

The custom of having Washington insiders become lobbyists, especially in the oil industry according to Ratigan is unacceptable and is partially responsible for our unrelenting energy dependence. And a small one page peek at the evils of gerrymandering hardly does justice to the skewering of the democratic ideals that are currently being addressed, nay, struggled with, in many states these years after the 2010 census.

A final thrust at the media, expresses most of his political philosophy: “We need media that uncovers what every chapter in this book shows: that both Democrats and Republicans give away vast amounts of taxpayer money to greedy bastards. They just go about it differently. As a result, like any other vampire industry, politics has become an exercise in ruthless self-preservation, a monopoly that exists mainly to keep existing when its productive value has faded away,”

He does end on a note of optimism, although some might call it fantasy. Everything he criticizes is fixable.  “We may never wipe out all of the greedy bastards, but with our resolve and digital technologies, we can reduce their numbers and minimize the damage they can inflict on our world.” One wonders what he’s smoking.

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The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

By Don DiLillo


Scribner | 2011 | 209 pages

January 2012


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Literary icon that he is, Don DiLillo is not everyone’s – pardon the cliché – cup of tea.  But if New Yorker fiction turns you on, then stay with me here because a DeLillo experience is beyond a mere read. It’s an immersion in the melding of exquisite language and the illumination of being, that culminates into a unique creative entity. If that sounds excessively high minded and opaque, that’s what happens when you try to synthesize the DeLillo oeuvre. He is a serious commentator on the world as it is, and in that pursuit, an observer of the minutiae of life. And how opaque can that be !!!

“ ‘What do you really see? What do you really hear?’ DeLillo ponders when i ask how he stays tuned in to the dream waves of American life.” (in an interview with John Freeman in 2006) “That’s what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly,” he says.”

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is DiLillo’s only collection of short stories,  appearing in the book sequentially dated from 1979 to 2011. And one wonders if  the choice of the subtitle, “Nine Stories” is an act of co-incidence or is he playing with J.D. Salinger’s second published book (1953,) titled  “Nine Stories by Salinger.”

DiLillo is themes, and symbolism and reality. He’s not much for action or plot, nor do we get much in-depth revelation of the innards of character. We get people simply executing their daily life routines and joyously, DiLillo leaves it up to the reader to interpret the  video-like vignette he  presents. The stories abound with diversity of geography and societal status and peopled circumstances. No one story reminds us of any other. 

DiLillo has  been around long enough  (his first novel was published in 1971)  for his oeuvre to have been studied, critiqued, analyzed, acclaimed, compared,  and damned (rarely.) His publications are too numerous even to count, genres including novels, essays,  short stories in prestigious magazines, plays, screenplays, and essays. I’ve lost count also of the numbers of books published about him, and his awards probably require a special structure  for safe keeping. References to him and to his works are several pages long, and plan to spend several days if you Google his name and desire to read everything therein referenced. 

In the process  of having 3 decades of  his work subjected to intense scrutiny the DeLillo “themes”  are interpreted fairly consistently: reflections on reality, the effects of terror in all of its range, characters enmeshed in circumstances they cannot control, people searching for meaning in life, the excessive influence of media in our daily lives, characters indulging in obsessions. But in an interview with PEN in September 2010, DiLillo himself strips it down to:  “The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time- time and loss. This was not a plan. Novels have simply tended to edge in that direction…. time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner.”  I love his revealing reference to “enigmatic”  (thesaurus:  mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable, unfathomable)  because for me, this is at the core of his characters and indeed of his story structure. 

And just for a sliver of insight into the man, in an interview with the German publication Die Zeit  following publication of Falling Man, his novel of the post 9/11 fallout,  DiLillo was asked: “What is your political orientation?”  to which he replied, “I’m an independent. And I would rather not say anything more about it.”  The interviewer persisted, “Why not?” to which DiLillo answered, “Well, in the Bronx,  where I grew up, we’d have put it this way: Because it’s none of your fucking business.”

Briefly, to some of  the nine stories, in three parts, bundled according to their dated origin, Creation (1979) concerns the failed attempts by a young couple to return from their Caribbean vacation as they experience inability to book flights, her frantic need to leave the island, and his enigmatic (that word, again) responses.

In  Human Moments in World War 111 (1983) ,  two astronauts view the earth during their orbital mission and converse with each other about  big life issues,  ”The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war… Earth orbit puts men into a philosophical temper… it makes a man feel universal … orbital routine gives our time a shape and substance.”

Along his route, The Runner, (1988)  is told of a father kidnappinghis young son, but in retrospect, the bearer of the tale equivocates,  “The car, the man, the mother, the child. Those are the parts. But how do the parts fit together? Because now that I’ve had time to think, there’s no explanation.”

Kyle suffers an ongoing sense of doom as she experiences a series of mild earthquakes in Greece,  “she lived inside a pause,” as her friend Edmund gives her The Ivory Acrobat, (1988)  of the story title, replacing the roof ornament that had shattered during a tremor.“It’ll only get broken when the next one hits…”

In the book title, “The Angel Esmeralda,”  (1994)  Sister Edgar  often walks the south Bronx streets witnessing the  varieties of life degradation  looking for ways to help the people trapped therein. Her cohort Gracie goes “half berserk, ” at the sight of a tour bus sign, “South Bronx Surreal,” as she calls out, “It’s not surreal. It’s real. It’s real. You’re making it surreal by coming here. The bus is surreal. You’re surreal…. Brussels is surreal. Milan is surreal. The Bronx is real.”  Yet when the young child, Esmeralda, is raped and killed the neighborhood finds a way to mourn.

 Baeder-Meinhof  (2002)  takes place in a museum and follows the young couple who meet there as they return daily to view particular pictures. Midnight in Dostoevsky, (2009)  my personal favorite, deals with two male college friends who love to engage in invented scenarios and witty dialogue about the imagined lives of others as they engage after their Logics class with Professor Ilgauskas, who reads Dostoevsky day and night In a diner.  Hammer and Sickle (2010) takes place in a minimum security prison as the inmates watch two young sisters, (unbeknownst to the other observers, the daughters of one of the inmates,)  discussing market conditions and the state of the business world. And The Starveling (2011) my next favorite, is about an obsessive serial movie-goer, who observes and then follows (stalks?)   a woman in the various movie houses he attends, as she too is engaged in the same serial viewing activity. This is somewhat reminiscent of DiLillo’s  recent work,  (2010) “Point Omega” in which filmmaker, Richard Elster  is possessed with  an ongoing incessant need to review the film “Psycho,”

This short collection is an ideal way to “taste”  DiLillo, whose  work will live with Roth’s and Updike’s and Bellow’s and Hemingway’s  and any number of other great writers who sing America and try to make sense of her. 

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LOST KINGDOM: Hawaii’s Last Queen, The Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure

by Julia Flynn Siler

Atlantic Monthly Press | 2011 | 296 pages

January 2012

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Aloha! I’ve spent time in some of the most exotic places in the world, experienced traditions, people, history, and mores as far from my Brooklyn upbringing as my imagination had ever dared to take me, but I’ve never been to Hawaii. And since the wretched economy has placed me on travel hiatus, I plunged headlong into this other world, ready to lap up its story, (and its sugar) as I tried to retrieve old memories of James Michener’s 1959 classic, Hawaii.  

Lost Kingdom is history in action, worthy of Broadway staging, complete with front-of-the-book “Cast of Characters,” including appropriate references. And lest you cannot make context connections, there is a convenient glossary of translations from the Hawaiian dictionary.

Author Julia Flynn Siler, a prize winning journalist, is no newcomer to bringing historical dynasties into full vitality on the printed page. Her 2007 The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of An American Wine Dynasty won many awards.

Lost Kingdom takes us from Captain Cook’s arrival on the island in 1778, (bringing “deadly diseases, liquor and firearms”) to the establishment of the territory of Hawaii in 1898. It is a story of a sovereign monarchy and descendants of peaceful Polynesians that were transformed into a target for what has been called American imperialism. And in case we have lost our sense of history, corruption and greed are not germane only to the 21st century. Missionaries and white entrepreneurs were responsible for much of the treachery that caused the demise of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Lili”uokalani, descendant of the Kamehameha dynasty, was born in 1838 and married John Owen Dominis, the America born son of a ship captain who became Prince Consort when Lili”u (pronounced Lee lee ooh) ascended to the throne in 1891. Theirs was surely less than an ideal marriage and it produced no children.

Claus Spreckels, German immigrant/entrepreneur, was responsible for the development of Hawaii’s sugar crop into a major industry, and not incidentally, he emerged as the richest islander of the period. In transactions that were considerably less than philanthropic, he loaned money to the royal family, which drove them deeply into debt and eventual downfall. As an aside, Siler informs her readers that author Danielle Steele owns the Spreckles “Sugar Palace” mansion now located in San Francisco.

The book brings readers into several insurrections and uprisings as commercialism and the strong influence of missionaries conspired to weaken the royal hold on its people, despite Lilli”u’s efforts to retain power. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, The Descendants, this book can serve as a kind of prelude to where the George Clooney character is coming from.

With the United States, Great Britain, France, and indeed Japan, all looking to sink their tentacles deep inside “Paradise” and its sprawling largesse of the sweetest of sweets, sugarcane, President Grover Cleveland, along with the Queen, attempted to block the U.S. move to annex Hawaii as a territory. By 1898, however, it was clear that the U.S. government, despite the objections of many who bewailed the loss of the monarchy, as well as those who did not want to see us as an imperialistic power, had quelled a counterrevolution, thereby acquiring the new territory.

And intertwined in the political and economic struggles of that land, we get the cultural and geographical appeal of the Hawaii that has attracted tourists to its shores for decades. Characters are fleshed out as real people and events unfold cinematically.      If historical biography is your métier, or if Hawaii calls you to her bosom, or if you merely want a good, well researched book of action, character and authenticity, give yourself the treat of Lost Kingdom.

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LOST MEMORY OF SKIN

By Russell Banks

416 pages, Harper Collins Publisher, 2011

December 2011

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This book may go down as Russell Banks’ best-to-date, in competition with his 16 previously published  and acclaimed novels and two books of non fiction. (Not that it doesn’t have flaws)  It is hefty in size and concepts and ambivalence and although it is hardly to be labeled a book of “action” one gets the sense that stuff is happening on each page. Banks plows into the heart and guts of his characters with a word palette that is meticulous in detail and color and composition and dimension, so that by the time his canvas is complete, three “D” people walk out of his pages in full flesh with their thoughts and feelings and contradictions spread across their bodies in clear signage. The book is a remarkable blend of character and social issues.

“Lost Memory of Skin” is essentially about losers who are not what they seem to be. The protagonist calls himself The kid. He is a 22 year old skinny convicted sex offender whose personality “had no specialty.” He must wear an ankle  locator for the 10 years of his probation, and must  never “locate”  any closer than 2500 feet from where children might reasonably be expected to assemble. He therefore winds up living under “The Causeway,”  in fictitious Calusa, (Miami?) living among a motley group of other banished-from-society  sex offenders. He is obsessively caring of his beloved  full grown pet iguana, “Iggy.”

Along comes “The Professor,” an obese,  “three times fat, ” sociologist bent on studying the habits and lives of this segment of underworld society. He hooks up with “The Kid,” in a kind of arrangement wherein the kid agrees to “be studied.”

In a discussion with his wife, Gloria, (“Glory-Glory-Hallelujah”) the professor tries to explain the psychology of sex offenders, “We cast them aside. We treat them like pariahs, when in fact we should be studying them up close … as if they were fellow human beings who have reverted to being … gorillas, and whose genetic identity with us .. can teach us what we ourselves are capable of becoming .. if we don’t reverse the social elements that caused them to abandon a particularly useful set of sexual taboos in the first place.” The professor is lofty if not entirely credible as the person he purports to be. And in his eagerness to uncover the elements of character that converge into producing a full fledged sex offender, his reliance on pornography could well be a clue into his own inner being.

There is a strong section of relevance to the reality of the way that “texting” has overtaken our language, wherein The Kid’s email messages illuminate the naked truth of its escalating distortion.

The Kid is unsophisticated and compassionate, searching for connectivity, yet wary of human contact, uneducated but uncannily perceptive, perhaps even smart. except for the time he was stupid enough to get caught in a sting while considering the possibility of having sex with a minor. 

As the second part of the book unfolds, Banks switches from character to plot and teases us with a bit of mystery, shrouded in Socratic philosophy, and an endless, and repetitive dissection of the age old search for  “truth.”

After a major hurricane has caused  The Kid to evacuate from his Causeway Home, he retreats to the Panzacola Swamp, (The Everglades?) where he  finds temporary paradise as he navigates a rented houseboat into the solitude of the glades and feels a strong  affinity to the local birds and swamp animals.  Graphic and accurately historic in his descriptions of the area, Banks calls forth some of the works of renown Everglades activist. Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The first page of the book quotes  Metamorphoses: “Now I am ready to tell how bodies change,” which is all the hint you will get regarding the book title.

Indeed, it should have ended several pages before it actually did, and knowing how writers tend to fall in love with their words, I am surprised that Banks’ editor didn’t slash some of the redundancies. But they are well worth slogging through to savor true craftsmanship.

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FICTION RUINED MY FAMILY : A Memoir

By Jeanne Darst

Riverhead Books, published by Penguin Group 303 pages

November 2011

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I’m  a really good soldier. I follow my marching orders fastidiously. “Here’s the book. Read it. Review it.” I do it.  

But I’m into page 60-ish and thinking “Why am I burdening  my eyes with this? I’ve already read Jeanette Wall’s, “The Glass Castle,” and dysfunctional family memoirs don’t get much better than that.”

So I take a short break and tap into the back cover blurbs , “It had me laughing out loud,” from Ira Glass, “It unfolds like a Eugene O’Neil play … only it’s also funny…” from Tad Friend. And get this one,  “Jeanne Darst is funnier than a blotto WASP in a Lilly Pulitzer wheelchair.”  (blotto WASP?) from Wendy Burden.

So I tried it again, and was glad that I did not give up. Her breezy style, is at first, somewhat off putting,  (“Mom was an awfully swell looking lady,” “I heard Don DeLillo lived in town (Bronxville, N.Y.) but I never saw his ass.”) However, she did display some Dave Barry type wit, and as she chronicled her adventures as a high-wired kid with ludicrously bad judgment, it had dollops of insightful writing  hidden in its creases. 

Jeanne is the youngest of four daughters. “a book hater, an accomplished reader, a paperwork junkie, and (Jeanne as a child) an idiot detective.” The family lived in St. Louis until Dad moved them to Bronxville, New York.

The mother is a major  la dee dah. (something like “blotto”) She came  from debutantes and prosperity, the youngest person, child equestrian, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1956, nee Doris Grissy. The father, Stephen Darst, is an eternally hopeful freelance writer. He has yet to sell a book, and is perennially working on one about the life of the Scott Fitzgeralds, which proves to be an underlying core theme that Jeanne struggles to unravel.

A strong influence on Jeanne, her writer- father was a language purist and cautioned her against many writer-sins. “As a kid, I was terrified of clichés ….I was under the impression they could .. ruin your life, your hopes and dreams, bring down your whole operation if you didn’t watch it. They were gateway language leading straight to   (God forbid?)  a business career, a golf marriage, needlepoint pillows … and a self- inflicted gun shot to the head that your family called a heart attack in your alma mater announcements.”

Tipsy, outrageous Mama finally became too much for Dad to handle, and in the inevitable struggle when marriages reached bottom, Mama was good to go. Finally, “With everyone else at college, Mom and Dad waited for me to graduate from high school so they could sell the house and get divorced. I felt like I was a slow eater and the check had been paid and everyone had coats on still sitting at the table, waiting for me to be finished,”  one of Darst’s several visually exacting analogies.

Dad had lots of rejections and no money, and during the period when the couple was waiting to split, Mom would be making family meals, while Dad was eating olives and chicken livers as the rest of the family ate lavishly. “(Dad) was fending for himself probably for the first time in his life. And I would rather not have watched, “ while Mother “seemed like Idi Amin,  eating her lamb in front of (him).” 

The story weaves in an out of Jeanne’s adventurous, risk-taking life, and her never-ending “career” moves: a go-fer at a law firm, a co-owner of a housecleaning business, an acting teacher, a topless appearance on a TV show, a limo driver, a website designer, a window box gardener, a playwright, all the while owning the soul of a writer. But also, all the while, speeding on her own road towards  alcoholic self destruction. 

Her mother died of a stroke after years of addictive behaviors. “I had wanted her to die … If she died, then I would have had a mother who loved me but just happened to be dead. If she continued living, then I had a mother who was killing herself slowly while I did nothing.”  

Several events in her life lead to an awakening, many lending themselves to high humor,  and Jeanne eventually straightened out and became a kind of fringe member of the establishment. And also, sober.

But her core issue remains and she struggles with coming to some symbiosis with her parental relationships. Her father’s obsession with Fitzgerald, and particularly Zelda’s life, is seen as a metaphor of his own relationship with his wife.

The question of how much a writer should  indulge in his work, to the exclusion of family, is one that leaves Darst  pondering. And in her quest, she manages to combine light heartedness with the truth of her angst.

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STATE OF WONDER

by Ann Patchett

Harper Collins Publishers | 2011 | 353 pages
September 2011
author ann patchett

You may wonder why a woman in her 60s, 70s or even older would want to get pregnant. Or you may wonder why a scientist would want to risk her life in the pursuit of discovering the cause of death of a colleague or why a pharmaceutical company would want to continue to employ someone whose research is so secret that even the people who pay her are not privy to any information about what she is doing. Or you may wonder about the long term psychological effect on a Doctor after having blinded an infant during delivery. And you may even wonder why a man who loves his wife and three young children would be willing to risk the perils of jungle life, making the conscious choice to stay there beyond the “call of duty.”  The question is, which of the above, or things not yet mentioned, does Ann Patchett expect you to “wonder” about?

What is a sure bet, is that if you are holding a copy of State of Wonder in your hand, or reading it on an e-book, you cannot put it down.

My 1987 trip down the very waters Patchett describes, and my reckless (in retrospect) jungle walks, machete in hand, were so intertwined with Patchett’s that I could feel the sting of the mosquitoes and I could hear the hiss of the snakes.

      Patchett is a master plotter and has the rare writer’s gift of storytelling with the combined eloquence of prose. She opens up all your senses: “…there were layers and layers of scents inside (the Hammock) and the smell of her own sweat which brought up trace amounts of soap and shampoo, the smell of the hammock itself which was both mildewed and sun baked with a slight hint of rope, and the smell of the boat gasoline and oils, and the smell of the world outside the boat, the river water and the great factory of leaves, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere…”    

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Manaus, the Brazilian shove-off point of the Amazon River and its myriad of tributaries, ostensibly to learn the details of the mysterious death of her colleague, fellow scientist Anders Eckman, whose wife cannot abandon their three young children to make that trip.

Leaving the Minnesota headquarters of pharmaceutical company VOGEL, and her somewhat boring lover-boss, Mr. Fox, Marina is also intrigued by the thought of reuniting with sharp-tongued Dr. Annick Swenson, a former mentor and teacher who is spearheading a secret research project for VOGEL.

And oh! The people we meet in the Amazon, to say nothing of the mosquitoes and sloths and tarantulas and snakes and capybaras.  “At dusk, the insects came down in a storm, the hard shelled and the soft sided, and the stinging and chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one enfolded its wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find…”  

The jungle darkness aligns with the dark story of the Lakashi women who eat tree bark to preserve their fertility, and of their neighboring tribe of cannibals.

Questions of scientific efficacy as well as ethics thread throughout the tale, as does Marina’s professional past and indeed, her own heritage. The cast of indigenous people sharpens the contrast and the diversity of humanity and the pace of the action is electric, in a setting with a scarcity of electricity.

My only gripe is the surprise ending that is too much like a wrapped Christmas present, but by the time you reach the closing, you’ll be happy enough to be in civilization and feel deserving of such largess. 

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