The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is not a book I would have kept reading beyond Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50 but it's for the Heart of Spirituality book group at the library, so I slogged through it. The problem is the book is terribly dated, and not in a good way.
Saroyan was originally writing a movie script with the title, The Human Comedy, and based on Saroyan's youth in Fresno, but he had a disagreement with the studio and although they went on to produce a movie, he took the title and the idea and created this book, intended to lighten hearts during World War II. My friend, Kate, says she is convinced it was small size with illustrations and very short chapters which are short moral tales so that soldiers could carry it with them. She may be right.
Saroyan was a playwright and his novels were never approved of by the critics. After WW II he was seen as sloppy and sentimental (I would have to agree) and his work went out of favor.
The story is about 14-year-old Homer Macaulay, who is on a voyage to maturity in his fictional home town of Ithaca. His father is dead and his older brother, Marcus, is fighting in the war. Homer has lied about his age and is working as a delivery boy for a telegraph company and some of the telegrams he delivers are from the war department announcing the death of a son overseas. The manager of the office, Mr Spangler, who becomes a father figure to Homer, is wise, loving, forgiving, understanding, and all-in-all, angelic. There's a little too much fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man for my taste.
2011 No 37
Fantasy is very much in vogue right now and this books is the most fantastical I've encountered. It concerns a wildly popular book club with astute exegesis and commentary by the members, who are studio heads, screenwriters, directors, producers, and other Hollywood bigwigs. As the author points out Hollywood runs on phone calls and so verbal skill is highly prized but there is nothing but distain for the written word.
Nonetheless, we suspend disbelief, and follow Anne, a PhD in English from Columbia (as is Howard) as she is asked by a friend to put together a book list for her. She does and the friend asks if she and a couple of others can talk about the books with Anne. As time goes on more and more people ask to be included and eventually her book club becomes fodder for Entertainment Tonight, People, Vanity Fair, and beyond. As I said, total fantasy.
The author's skillful use of book discussions to slowly and subtly display Anne's reserved personality and to tell the reader something he believes strongly about literature: it brings people together. Their son, Sam's, trip to Israel and a bad experience there leads Howard to re-examine his Orthodox roots and his decision to marry a non-Jewish woman.
Or perhaps I should say the sometimes positive. I liked - no, loved - the literary thread in this book. It's more like a thick rope as Anne, the Episcopalean wife of Howard, son of Orthodox Jews and now agnostic, communicates to the people around her and eventually to her husband primarily through books. The group reads Lord of the Flies, Bronte, Auden, Edward Lear, and many others. Her discussions of these authors and books are the best part of the novel.
A must-read for English majors and for Christopher Hitchens (who is vociferously anti-religion.) Probably not the thing for those with strongly-held Jewish beliefs and pro-Israel politics. The novel is very critical of conservative Jews but it is not anti-Jewish; it's anti-religion. The author writes from his own life and that is a Jewish experience.
2011 No 36 Coming soon: Finally, the books about Estee Lauder.
First lines from famous novels. How many do you recognize?
Lots of quotes today: best first lines from novels.
The Bad Quarto by Jill Paton Walsh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The last and best of Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy (rhymes with Why) mysteries revolves around the Bad Quarto of Hamlet, a book that is much shorter than the play as we know it, contains no dumb show before the play within the play, and that makes a perfect vehicle for a Cambridge student named Mottle to accuse a professor of murdering his friend Talentire.
Imogen is the college nurse at St Agatha's and when the lodgers in her old family house ask her to help with The Kyd Players, a university drama club, she agrees to take notes at a meeting and suggests the hall at St Agatha's as a venue for their play. There was a fire in their old rooms and they were uninsured and desperately need about 100,000 pounds. Mottle has offered them that sum if they will let him play Hamlet in their upcoming production and they feel it's an offer they can't refuse.
If the theater is theme I in this mystery, climbing is theme II. Many students at Cambridge climb not just mountains but also the university buildings. It was during one such caper that a student died and Mottle produces a dumb show of Talentire's death during Hamlet, with a noted professor, recognized by his flamboyant vests, as the villain.
There are dozens of strings in this story, concerning canal boats, expert witnesses in court cases, the appointment of an honorary three-year fellow, crib death and shaken-baby syndrome, a student who tries to get out of exams with a clever ruse (that Imogen sees through), and the disreputable "boyfriend" of a student who was admitted to St Agatha's by affirmative action.
I hope the author is working on another in this excellent series.
2011 No 35
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44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
The most interesting thing about 44 Scotland Street is its choppy structure. The editors at The Scotsman asked the author to write a serial novel with the parts to be published not every month as with many Victorian novels, or even every week, but every single day. McCall Smith being the sort of what ho! guy he is said yes and the result is this gentle, charming novel of the everyday lives of a dozen characters in various degrees of trouble, ranging from an octogenarian artist with a gold tooth (and a dog with a gold tooth just like his own - such an imagination McC S has) to a five year old who has had it with saxaphone and Italian language lessons and isn't crazy about his pink bedroom (excuse me, "space") either.
The most thrilling and suspenseful episode is a short investigation of a disused rail tunnel under Scotland Street and the surprise that lies at the end of the branch line the adventurers discover. The most interesting character is a loathsome narcissist whose self-confident bungling is hilarious. The most sympathetic character is the young woman, about 20, taking her second gap year and reminding the reader repeatedly about how she is trying to forget his disastrous first gap year (about which we are all most eager to hear the details), and working in an art gallery for a young man who has been entirely so unsuccessful in past endeavors that his rich father has bought him a gallery to keep him busy.
Everyone who likes the sort of thing McCall Smith writes knows all of his series' and is way ahead of me in reading them. I'm enjoying being in the position of having dozens of books yet to read.
2011 No 34
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Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story by Isabel Gillies
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars
This heartbreaking memoir is about a happy family. They have recently moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where the husband, Josiah, has landed a teaching job, and they’ve bought their first house and decorated it with bright light colors and William Morris wallpaper. The wife, Isobel, who also has a job teaching acting at Oberlin, comes home one day with their two little boys and finds Josiah hanging photos from both sides of the family on every inch of the walls of the bathroom. She is touched at his display of family togetherness and pride.
One month later it’s over. When classes begin Josiah meets a new English teacher who is herself just married over the summer, and three weeks later he tells Isobel he can’t stay married to her any longer. Isobel is an actress and she tends to be dramatic but really, who wouldn’t be distraught and act out in this situation? She begs him to reconsider, goes to a family counselor with him, asks herself constantly, “What did I do? What didn’t I do? How can he leave us, me and the boys? How can this be happening?”
The author has a knack for describing social interactions, lake effect snow during an Ohio winter, a normal morning getting the boys up and dressed and out to nursery school. And she has the self-knowledge to observe what she is doing as she does it and how she feels about what is happening to her and her children and to put it on the page so that the reader feels she is experiencing the same joy and anguish and shame and hope and exasperation.
At the end of the semester Isobel goes back to New York City with the boys and moves in with her parents. No one is overjoyed with this solution but they make it work and eventually she makes a new life for herself. Josiah, for whom this is a second divorce, marries the woman for whom he left his family. Isobel finds love and joy with a second husband.
This isn’t the sort of book I tend toward but when I saw it recommended at the web site of Karen (of Bookish NYC) I sent a sample to my Kindle and couldn’t stop reading at the end of the excerpt. Take a look at Park Avenue Divorce, which Karen has launched with a friend and former client, with excerpts from the first chapters of a book they have written together called The Park Avenue Guide to Divorce (Even if You Live on Main Street) which will be available from Amazon.com in July.
Don’t miss the article by Mary Greene in the Mail Online about Karen Robarge and some of her interesting experiences.
2011 No 33 Coming soon: those books about Estee Lauder I promised you a while back.
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Curiosity Thrilled the Cat by Sofie Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There are only six novels by Jane Austen and at the rate I'm going they won't last long so today when I was at Barnes & Noble I picked up a few fluffy cozies, easy comfort reading, including this first in a new series by Sofie Kelly, Curiosity Thrilled the Cat.
And zipped right through it.
It's a good story, about a librarian who moves from Boston to a small town in Minnesota to take charge of the renovation of an old Carnegie library. When she finds the body of a lecherous old conductor who is in town for a summer music festival the police naturally focus on her, suggesting that she was having an affair with him. She was not. Her only meeting with the man was when he complained the new computers weren't hooked up in the library, during which discussion her cat jumped onto his head from a bookshelf. He was not amused.
Lots of cat stuff, food, tai chi, and charm. Not much about books, though, which was a disappointment. If you like the Donna Andrews' bird mysteries, the Laura Childs' tea shop mysteries, or Aunt Dimity, you might want to take a look at this.
2011 No 32
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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After clean water, vaccination is the most important tool we have in preventing disease. And yet, in the year 2011, so many parents are refusing to have their children immunized that ever-increasing numbers of children are suffering from easily preventable childhood diseases and the resulting permanent harm and even death that they sometimes bring.
The concerns of parents about vaccines are primarily based on the perception that MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) inoculations cause autism because they contain a type of mercury. They do not contain mercury of any kind (although they once did contain minute amounts of a benign mercury compound) and there is not a shred of scientific evidence that autism has any relationship to mercury or vaccinations.
In 1998 a doctor, who was in the pay of lawyers preparing class action suits alleging their clients’ children were autistic because of the inoculations they had received, published a paper in the highly-respected medical journal, Lancet, claiming he had detected a relationship between shots and autism. This claim has since been proven to be entirely fabricated, he has lost his license to practice in England, and he is in disgrace with the medical community.
Nonetheless, every day books are published and magazine articles written, news stories are broadcast and radio and TV interviews are conducted in which the arguments of passionate parents of children with autism are presented sympathetically when they claim, with no scientific evidence at all, that there have been studies that have shown that “jabs” cause autism and that their own children became autistic within hours or days of being inoculated.
From the book: Anecdotes and suppositions, no matter how right they feel, don’t lead to universal truths; experiments that can be independently confirmed by impartial observers do. Intuition leads to the flat earth society and bloodletting; experiments lead to men on the moon and microsurgery.
This is one of the saddest stories of our day. The parents who believe this myth about autism and refuse to have their children inoculated are not living in depressed inner city neighborhoods. They are not high-school dropouts. They are upper middle class parents, people with advanced degrees and professional training, lawyers, businesswomen, nurses, who should know how to differentiate between old wives tales and scientific experimentation. And there are enough of them that for some diseases we no longer have what’s called herd immunity. Not enough of us have been vaccinated against diseases like Hib, whooping cough, and measles to prevent epidemics. Our family doctor gave my husband a pertussis shot the other day because so many parents have refused to have their children inoculated that whooping cough is now epidemic in Washington state.
Measles is the most infectious microbe known to man and has killed more children than any other disease in history. And we are no longer protected against it because people who should know better are relying on “gut feelings” and their “mommy instinct” instead of clear and repeatedly proven scientific evidence. The result is numbers of cases of measles that, according to the Center for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly are beyond historical limits.
Click on chart to enlarge.
Seth Mnookin's fine book explains clearly and with extensive footnotes to reliable sources how this appalling situation came about and the resulting tragedies that have ensued. He quotes psychologists who have studied mob behavior and phenomena such as cognitive dissonance, availability cascades, and confirmation bias, all of which have contributed to the spread of the untruths about autism and immunization. He describes the growing market offering alternative medicines, unproven procedures, and other costly but ineffective treatments that are touted to “cure” autism. He examines the thousands of class action suits that have been brought to the US Vaccine Court. He quotes experts from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics – scientists and doctors specialising in vaccinology, immunology, communicable disease, autism, toxicology. All of them, without exception, deny there is evidence connecting autism with vaccinations.
The author speaks of his young son: As my son grows older, I hope that . . . he will feel empowered to make his own decisions and will have the self-confidence to challenge traditional wisdom. I also hope that he learns the difference between critical thinking and getting swept up in a wave of self-righteous hysteria and I hope he considers the effects of his actions on those around him. Finally, for his sake and for that of everyone else alive, I hope he grows up in a world where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake.
2011 No 31
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