Ahhhh, Tuscany in the summer! This book does a fine job of transporting you both to modern day Siena and to 14th-century Siena through two simultaneouAhhhh, Tuscany in the summer! This book does a fine job of transporting you both to modern day Siena and to 14th-century Siena through two simultaneous stories. The main story, set in modern day, involves a rather unappealing young woman named Julie who travels to Siena to uncover secrets about her family and The True Story about the two feuding families who provided the basis for Romeo and Juliet.
The second storyline, set among the danger and drama of Renaissance Siena, is where the novel really shines. Somehow it’s so vivid and immediate that I was desperate to find out if maybe – maybe! – things would work out for these prototypes of the star-crossed lovers we first met in 8th grade English class. All the best plot elements from Shakespeare’s play are here – perfidious adults, power politics, and the anguish of doomed love. And such doom! In this author’s rendition, the action is fleshed out to be grander, darker, more violent, and more exciting than a masked ball and a couple of duels. (Will I be struck by lightning for saying that?)
The bad news is that the novel derails in the modern day sections. Our main character Julie is irritating, she has an evil twin sister who’s sometime evil and sometimes just childish, and the dialogue has so many bizarre idioms that I wondered if it had been written by a foreigner (turns out, yes). And unfortunately, the modern story is narrated in first person so we’re treated to Julie’s uneven voice and questionable powers of reason the whole time. Plus her obsession with Romeo and Juliet means she quotes it incessantly and feels mystically doomed because, after all, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, so she’s obviously fated for a tragic end herself! Because we are doomed to repeat history!! (That was not a spoiler: Julie does not end up stabbing herself in a crypt.)
Anyway, the end result is that the 14th century storyline is a gripping homage to Shakespeare, but the modern storyline comes like come across like a Shakespeare-themed Nancy Drew adventure. Even this isn’t entirely bad, though, because instead of Ned Nickerson we get a swarthy Italian policeman with rich relatives.
Another plus is that I learned a lot about Siena, which I’ve never been to and now am dying to visit. Overall, it was a fun summer read. ...more
Two-plus stars. This had promise, but fell a bit flat. While the descriptions of life for Jews in Vienna at the end of the 30's was interesting and unTwo-plus stars. This had promise, but fell a bit flat. While the descriptions of life for Jews in Vienna at the end of the 30's was interesting and understandably moving, once the action moved to England the story lost its fizz. Part of the problem is that I didn’t much like the main character, so the story suffered by being in first person. Plus I don’t like feeling conflicted about being sympathetic to a plight more than to the person suffering the plight. Shouldn't a person's suffering make her more sympathetic?? Not necessarily to me, and I don’t want to bother wondering if this is a character flaw. Regardless, I don’t think the book came across as less cohesive and captivating because of my maybe-flaw – I think the book simply wasn’t as gripping as it could have been. ...more
The problem with Shaw is that I always feel crabbier when I read him. Even Pygmalion, which strikes me as a superior play, makes me slightly irritableThe problem with Shaw is that I always feel crabbier when I read him. Even Pygmalion, which strikes me as a superior play, makes me slightly irritable, and Major Barbara doesn’t have any musical tunes to hum while you’re trudging through Shaw’s dreary I Am So Keenly Critical and Nuanced dialogue. The other problem is that, in my opinion, he’s neither keen nor nuanced. He’s bigoted and cranky, and his weak humor begs an unfavorable comparison to Oscar Wilde, who probably didn’t like this play either. I know – Shaw brings up interesting questions about individual and corporate responsibility toward those who purchase goods, and he explores the question (impossibility) of a utopia. These are good issues, and not easily resolved in or out of the play. But Shaw’s antagonism toward religion and his disgust for human beings in general are so off-putting that I want to toss the book at his feet. Too bad someone didn’t tell him that misanthropy gets tiresome.
In retrospect, possibly what pushed me over the edge wasn’t actually Shaw’s play, but having to listen to self-righteous classmates discuss it. “It’s awful that the Salvation Army hands out bread and soup instead of providing job training!” “Yes, in fact it’s EVIL when you think about it!” No, it’s not. Isn’t it bad enough to have to read about ridiculous characters? Must I also have to listen to ridiculous comments from actual people?? ...more
This breezy page-turner is tinged with a pleasingly mellow shade of Faulkner Lite – not too much eccentricity, not too much sins-of-the-fathers fataliThis breezy page-turner is tinged with a pleasingly mellow shade of Faulkner Lite – not too much eccentricity, not too much sins-of-the-fathers fatalism, and just enough Southern atmosphere to make you reach for a glass of lemonade and be thankful for modern pharmaceuticals. Here's the premise: a young Chicago woman gets an invitation from her college friend, Will, to spend the summer in his family’s ancestral home in Tennessee. She can relax on the porch, eat chicken salad with his great aunts, and maybe start writing the novel she’s been thinking about. Will’s family turns out to be the kind that has framed letters from Thomas Jefferson on the wall and Secrets Nobody Ever Talks About. For the bohemian-raised Ava, who doesn’t know her mother’s real name let alone her genealogy back to Adam, this is as much of a culture shock as dressing for dinner and hearing people’s life story at the gas station.
Fortunately, the book isn’t full of the overly wacky “characters” that often plague Southern fiction. Well, there is a cousin who dresses up like Edgar Allan Poe, but he’s kind of funny. The great aunts are charming, the story moves along nicely, and the occasional flashbacks to 1927 or 1931 make for an intriguing element. This isn’t great literature, but it’s a great summer read. ...more
A university lecturer, hard up for cash, gets a tip that there may have been a SIXTH Cambridge spy whom the British government has kept under wraps foA university lecturer, hard up for cash, gets a tip that there may have been a SIXTH Cambridge spy whom the British government has kept under wraps for years. As he tries to piece together the story, his sources start turning up dead, which he eventually decides must mean that the leftover bigwigs of the KGB also want to keep the sixth spy under wraps. Unfortunately, the hero is not particularly likeable and comes across as naïve – especially considering his specialty is Cold War Russian history – which ruins what otherwise could have been quite a fun thriller. The premise is interesting, though....more
While nothing will help me understand the mania for vampires, at least this book was genuinely creepy...creepy enough that I had to make a classmate wWhile nothing will help me understand the mania for vampires, at least this book was genuinely creepy...creepy enough that I had to make a classmate who always parked nearby walk me to my car and check underneath it to make sure some man in a cape wasn’t clinging to the bottom waiting to grab my ankles or WORSE. The beginning is that scary. Portentous weather, foreboding landscape, cryptic warnings from the natives, freaky castle, freakier inhabitants....it all looks very grim for our hero, a hapless solicitor sent to Transylvania to help a client transition some of his affairs to England. The atmosphere of danger and doom make even the most implausible elements (wolves with glowing eyes! men crawling down castle walls!) completely chilling. For the first few chapters I was too creeped out to walk outside alone at night, hence the forced chivalry.
Then, in what feels like a bait and switch but of course isn't, the narrative shifts and we’re back in England with the hero’s fiancée, Lucy, and her best friend. This should be where things get interesting, as Dracula – the ancient, foreign menace – is now coming to safe & familiar England to search for new victims, and we get to see his powers of seductive corruption in action. However, the story loses some of its zing, and all the doom and dread and “What could this mean?!” I was sucked into in Transylvania seemed faintly ridiculous in the London sections. Alas.
On the plus side, I enjoyed Stoker’s commentary on understanding evil. The company of Englishmen in Dracula is too modern, too complacent with scientific understanding to figure out Lucy’s decline. Only Dr. Van Helsing knows to hearken back to legends, traditions and folklore in order to apprehend the threat. It’s an interesting approach, for Van Helsing does not pit science against faith, or pagan myths against Christianity; rather, he pits modern, rational science against the mythical and supernatural. Van Helsing is not a priest, and although he uses symbols of salvation (a crucifix and communion wafers), the battle he wages is more spiritual than religious, the conflict between good and evil more in the mystical rather than in the orthodox realm.
Dracula is well suited to an age of rapid scientific and technological development, for it speaks to the limitations of man’s purely rational achievements. Plus, it packs a double whammy of gothic horror: Dracula does not merely exert physical control by kidnapping women or locking them in a tower – he also produces spiritual enslavement and damnation, which must be combated by similarly spiritual means. However, the corrupting influence of Dracula is neither immediate nor absolute; Dracula can outmaneuver our band of Englishmen but not defeat them; he’s tricky, not invincible. And, most importantly, he’s subject to the strength of goodness and to the ultimate power of death. *SPOILER ALERT* Significantly, Lucy’s soul is returned to a state of purity when she dies, and even Dracula himself seems released from the evil possessing him when he is defeated. For some reason, this facet has been jettisoned in contemporary vampire stories, in which the vampire main characters are attractive victims of circumstance who try to control their blood lust, against whom neither man nor death has any power, only fellow vampires. In this vision, vampirism is contained – though never defeated – not by religious symbols, but by individual will. Does this mean that there is no possibility of redemption from evil, only management of it? And vampires, with their strength of body or strength of will, are the ultimate power in the world? I find this more disturbing and ridiculous than the original vampire legends.
There are about a million critical essays on the cultural/psychological/religious/sexual issues Dracula brings up, which are interesting, but for me those issues are secondary to the actual novel, which isn’t spectacularly written. Still, it’s worth reading. ...more
Another funny mystery, though not nearly as good as the previous two. This time the murder takes place at the fictional St. Michael’s College, CambridAnother funny mystery, though not nearly as good as the previous two. This time the murder takes place at the fictional St. Michael’s College, Cambridge, where the cash-strapped college is hosting a special weekend for rich alumni. Unfortunately, this time the author often goes for easy jokes, the solution is improbable, and — worst of all — there’s an appallingly written American character who occasionally throws cowboy expressions from TV Westerns into snarky, complexly British-sounding sentences. It's as though the author couldn't make the effort to change her voice but every now and then remembered to sound "Texan," which is weird because she's smart and has lived in both England and the US, so why the gross unevenness? I was also a bit irritated because I kept referring to the map of the college at the front of the book to keep track of who was where, and it didn’t matter, so I felt taken in. Or maybe it did matter but I couldn’t figure out how. Not bad, but not great. Certainly not disappointing enough to give up on this series....more
A Massachusetts whaling ship is anchored off the island of Santa Maria when another ship, looking listless and forlorn, drifts toward the island. WhenA Massachusetts whaling ship is anchored off the island of Santa Maria when another ship, looking listless and forlorn, drifts toward the island. When the captain and a few men head over to investigate, they find Spanish sailors and black slaves desperate for water and supplies. The captain of this hapless lot, Benito Cereno, seems weak, aloof, and entirely unqualified to command a ship. What’s the deal?
Don’t read the back of the book or descriptions of the plot, as knowing anything about the ending will ruin the story. This brief thriller concerns adventure on the high seas, but really it’s Melville’s way of saying that the New World is heading over the same precipice as the Old World. Short, suspenseful, and lots of bang for your buck. I'm not a Melville fan, but this little gem is a masterpiece of narrative manipulation. Haunting. ...more
I don’t know which is stranger – that people like this book, or that it was written in the first place. It came into being because Gretchen Rubin, a wI don’t know which is stranger – that people like this book, or that it was written in the first place. It came into being because Gretchen Rubin, a woman with a bizarrely charmed life, decided to spend a year devoting each month to a “theme” designed to make herself happier and then write a book about it. The whole thing smacks not only of a calculated stunt, but also of the sort of “list” approach she used for her breathtakingly trite book on Churchill. Regardless, any reasonable person would wonder why this woman was worrying about how to be “happier” than she already was with her “soul mate” husband, two healthy children, a family she likes, in-laws* she likes, plenty of free time, and money coming out the wazoo. The obvious question is: “If she wants to be happier, why doesn’t she do more service?” The question you’ll also probably ask, repeatedly, is “What could a smug perfectionist with an easy life possibly teach me?” Honestly, I have no idea, unless it hasn’t already occurred to you to.....are you sitting down?.....stash your crap in file boxes instead of leaving it strewn all over, and stop nagging your husband. Other previously unmined gems of insight: “You can’t change others,” “Exercise makes you feel better,” “Be friendly,” “Do things you like to do,” “Be grateful,” and, my personal favorite, “Money can buy happiness.”
Even better, every ten sentences or so she inserts – not to be confused with “works in” – a quotation that sounds like the first entry in its category from The Big Book of Quotations. Based on the self-congratulatory tone she doesn’t quite have the skill to avoid, I’d guess she’s deeply invested in showing she is Educated, and has Done Research. I think you’re also supposed to surmise she’s really smart, based on the number of references to editing the Yale Law Review or clerking for a Supreme Court Justice. What she never mentions, yet you can also surmise, is the fact that money is no object. Neither is time.
While being rich and leisured doesn’t disqualify her from having wisdom, it does place her situation in context. She’s not struggling to find happiness amidst real trials – illness, poverty, loneliness, relatives who drive you bonkers – she just wants to be “happier.” What’s amazing is that with all her research, she doesn’t come up with anything profound. At best, her paper-thin “insights” are merely summaries of other people’s research. And yet, inexplicably, a couple of women in my book group actually liked it! These women don’t sit around wondering if they’re happy enough – they probably wonder if they’re faithful enough and doing enough good in the world. So what did they find valuable?? A couple of them said that the organization chapter prompted them to clean out closets, which is always good, but there are at least a hundred books on de-cluttering that were written by people who were already aware of file boxes. (I know this because my sister has bought all those books and occasionally gives them away as presents, unless you’re really lucky and she just throws your stuff out without being asked.) So the organization chapter struck me as a bit silly. But not as silly as turning to Nietzsche for tips on happiness. And I think that indicates the biggest flaw – her approach is entirely secular. Joy and fulfillment (a bit deeper and more lasting than “happiness”) come through doing good and, eventually, becoming good. Every now and then she stumbles as if by accident upon versions of the Golden Rule Lite, but, naturally, in her eyes the point of being nice to others is to make herself happier.
*Father-in-law is Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. He later served on Citigroup’s board as Senior Counselor. During his eight years at Citigroup, shareholders suffered losses of more than 70%; Rubin earned over $126 million. ...more
Huh-larious. From the woman who brought us Death and the Cozy Writer comes a new installment of murder among spectacularly absurd people. This time thHuh-larious. From the woman who brought us Death and the Cozy Writer comes a new installment of murder among spectacularly absurd people. This time they’re an assortment of mystery writers at a conference at some Scottish castle. Most of them have a motive for killing the star of the conference, a hack arriviste whose books are obviously inferior and yet, inexplicably, sell better. (The cow probably didn’t even write them herself!) To add insult to injury, she is also a blond knockout who’s about to make off with someone’s husband, or maybe she already did – I can’t remember many details, including who the murderer was, because the mystery is secondary to the amusement. I think the solution somehow hinges on the castle’s floor plan, so pay attention to the map in the front. I always skip that sort of thing because I have no sense of spacial relations. Perfect for wiling away a couple of hours....more
If this weren’t a true story, no one would buy it as fiction. The book opens in the spring of 1943, as Norway is suffering under Nazi occupation. FourIf this weren’t a true story, no one would buy it as fiction. The book opens in the spring of 1943, as Norway is suffering under Nazi occupation. Four ex-pat Norwegian commandos are heading to the coast with the intent of recruiting and training saboteurs – their ultimate goal is a German airbase, as the Allies desperately need a sea route to Russia. The mission is compromised, and young Jan Baalsrud is left on a tiny, snowy island in the Arctic Circle, drenched, shot, bleeding, unarmed, with only one shoe and a team of Nazis a couple hundred yards behind. How could anyone survive? The cold alone is enough to kill most of us off, not to mention the fright. What follows – frostbite, snow blindness, avalanches, treachery, heroism, starvation, and, always, miles and miles of Arctic snow – kept my mouth hanging open most of time. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Almost as astonishing as Jan’s story is the will of the people who help him, the danger they faced knowing what would happen to their families if they were found out. I have to admit I never think of Norway unless I’m watching the winter Olympics, and certainly I never think of it in the context of World War II, yet the Norwegians’ love of their country in all its frozen, inhospitable glory, and their will to fight the occupation are truly inspiring. Howarth’s prose is a bit bland, but perhaps that was intentional, as the story is breathtaking enough....more
The arrogant musings of a left-wing social philosopher who essentially divides people into three categories: dumb bunnies, common-sensers, and peopleThe arrogant musings of a left-wing social philosopher who essentially divides people into three categories: dumb bunnies, common-sensers, and people who have the deep insight to agree with him. The only take-home message worth taking home was that philosophy is not as effective a vehicle for ideas as literature, which I knew beforehand. ...more
Ruth Reichl, food critic and former editor of Gourmet magazine, is a fluid and engaging writer. Her stories about the early days of California CuisineRuth Reichl, food critic and former editor of Gourmet magazine, is a fluid and engaging writer. Her stories about the early days of California Cuisine were interesting, as were the anecdotes involving people like Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and the Aidells sausage guy before they became household names. But too much of the book is about her personal life, which at this phase involved living in a commune in Berkeley and pursuing several extra-marital affairs. Even if all her descriptions of meals had been for food I actually like, visions of unwashed, unshaven, unmarried people in flagrante would have killed my appetite. For me, the problem with these memoirs, as with some of her recipes, is content, not style....more
This play is far more powerful in production than on the page, yet reading it still gives a searing glimpse into the difficulties Congolese women areThis play is far more powerful in production than on the page, yet reading it still gives a searing glimpse into the difficulties Congolese women are facing in their country’s civil war, a convoluted, vicious conflict in which rape is systematically – and pervasively – used as a weapon. Drawing on her extensive interviews with victims/survivors, Lynn Nottage presents a tale of such suffering that it seems like a warped horror story from another time period or, we could wish, another planet. Yet it’s a frighteningly immediate story – variations of the drama are being enacted in real life every day. Also, the mineral at the center of the war, coltan, is fought over partly because it’s an essential component of cell phones. In an oddly disconcerting way, every one of us has a piece of the Democratic Republic of the Congo sitting on our desk or in our purse. I’m not prone to displaced guilt, but you have to admit it gives one pause.
The play takes place in a bar/brothel at the edge of a war zone and presents widely disparate characters – insurgents, government soldiers, prostitutes, international traders, and villagers. But at the center is Mama Nadi, the commanding owner and madam. One day she might be serving the insurgents, the next she might be entertaining the government soldiers, but her establishment is a neutral zone and everyone checks his bullets at the door. Mama’s forceful personality and equivocal ethics encapsulate the muddy, moral mess of war as well as the resilience of human nature. You know a world in which a brothel is a retreat, and working in a brothel a girl’s best hope, is not going to be a pretty one. But however horrific and alien the circumstances, the characters in the play grab you with their humanity, and they force you to relate to that shared humanity by witnessing assaults against it and, at times, triumphs of it.
I saw Ruined performed in the round, which means you could see through the actors and on-stage drama to rows of other theatre goers. This had the benefit of almost superimposing the action onto the audience; I simultaneously watched the actions of people halfway around the world and the reactions of people like me. The odd unity of actors and audience was suitable for a play full of alien and shared experience. Casual references to witch doctors and spats over nail polish occur in the same scene; the foreign and familiar are not mutually exclusive, and neither are unspeakable abuse and the possibility of healing. At the end of the play half the audience was smiling and breathing an audible “Ahhh” while the other half didn’t even applaud because they were still wiping their eyes…the combination of brutality and humanity is quite unsettling. However, I’d definitely wait to see it performed rather than read it – while it’s powerful, it’s no Streetcar. ...more
A self-obsessed New York writer retreats to his aunt’s house in Ireland in order to mourn a failed relationship. Actually, it never actually was a relA self-obsessed New York writer retreats to his aunt’s house in Ireland in order to mourn a failed relationship. Actually, it never actually was a relationship, as the woman in question preemptively rejected him through her indifference. That doesn't affect his heartbreak, though, and he requires sufficient time and a suitable location to indulge in self-pity. So off he heads to his aunt’s house, where he anticipates that the stark landscape of the Irish coast will provide a fitting backdrop to indulge in misery.
His aunt, who is only a couple of years older so she’s more like a cousin, is happy to have him.....though he suspects that the hideous floral wallpaper covering the kitchen walls was hastily put up in order to drive him out of doors, because she, too, is a writer and needs peace and quiet. Unlike her nephew, though, the aunt has made a mint with her books, which are thinly disguised re-writes of classics. Her approach is to “correct” the offending texts, giving the characters the endings they would have gotten if she were in charge of the universe.
Anyway, the story sort of follows the mourning writer’s blunderings around the coast, but it’s mainly about the almost surreal imbroglios of his aunt, her pig-tending former BFF, and her ancient-feud-sworn-enemy. The actual mystery – Who killed the man whose bones were uncovered by a stray pig in the aunt’s garden? – is almost incidental to the more amusing development of intense, zany Irish characters and their interactions with our self-absorbed writer. He, naturally, is less interested in the murder mystery than he is miffed that events keep conspiring to interrupt his mourning. My guess is that the author is making fun of rambly, overly-lyrical Irish fiction, which is why this occasionally reads like an exercise in magical realism. This might annoy some readers, but I found it hiilarious at times. ...more
Though at times charming, this book mostly left me wondering what sort of a world the author imagines England to be. Her characterizations are far morThough at times charming, this book mostly left me wondering what sort of a world the author imagines England to be. Her characterizations are far more disjointed than the plot, which has its flaws but at worst they’re jarring, not heinous. However, the characterizations don’t work not merely because there are only two or three bearable people in the entire novel (and this isn't a farcical satire), but mainly because they’re a convoluted mess of contexts. Major Pettigrew’s manners and standards hearken from a more gentlemanly era, yet it’s as though he’s a one-man time warp surrounded by modern incarnations of rudeness and overt materialism – his son is breathtakingly selfish and shallow, his relatives are vulgar and grasping, and the local squire has class snobbery but no sense of heritage. (And are we supposed to feel sorry for the Major because of his frightful son, or wonder at his bad parenting??)
Worse, and still more disjointed, many of the other characters seem to come from outposts of civilization in the 1930’s where people think that Mecca is a restaurant and Hindu and Muslim are the same things. Yet the story is obviously contemporary, so why would the author create a collection of characters in 2010 who overtly shun children raised by single mothers and won’t talk to the village shop owner because she’s “in trade” and has dark skin??? The whole thing is preposterous, and I suspect it comes from some people's obnoxious desire to paint the rest of the world as narrow-minded and petty in order to position themselves as morally superior. It’s a shame, because in defter hands the story could have been uniformly sweet and delightful. The idea of family heritage and honor being embodied in an heirloom is especially interesting and poignant...as is the fraught road to late-in-life love. Too bad the themes are ruined by the addled execution. (A highlight is when a curry dish is considered far too spicy and exotic to serve at some golf club dinner – the author is so hell-bent on portraying everyone as provincial that she somehow forgot the English have been eating curry for over a century?? Good grief.)...more
The brilliance of this book is its approach – Howarth goes through the day, section by section, and depicts what Waterloo was like from the perspectivThe brilliance of this book is its approach – Howarth goes through the day, section by section, and depicts what Waterloo was like from the perspective of several different men. Dry and confusing strategy is cast aside in favor of real-life experience and descriptions of the truly breath-taking gusts of fate that determined this battle. Good thing you know the outcome before you start! And, as a bonus, sort of, I have to admit that if anyone can breathe humanity into that dreadful little megalomaniac from Corsica, David Howarth can....more
David Howarth is another historian I would invite over to dinner every Sunday night if he lived nearby and weren’t already dead. I doubt he’d find meDavid Howarth is another historian I would invite over to dinner every Sunday night if he lived nearby and weren’t already dead. I doubt he’d find me as delightful as I find him, but I’d try. Even if you have no interest in the Norman Conquest, this book is so enchantingly and clearly written that you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a particularly good novel about those zany folk in medieval England and France. Even better, Howarth was an accomplished sailor, so he can offer educated speculation about the logistics of crossing the English Channel in various vessels – with war horses! – at various points, which doesn’t sound super exciting but is when he writes about it. My favorite aspect of his writing style is his matter of fact tone: he says, “Here’s what one original source says, here’s what this other original source says, here’s why they’re both suspect, and, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think probably happened.” It’s quality, in-depth scholarship for people with short attention spans. I almost drew little hearts in the margins. ...more
If you’ve ever wanted a short escape into the innocence and charm of bygone years, this is your book. In 1945, college student Marjorie and her friendIf you’ve ever wanted a short escape into the innocence and charm of bygone years, this is your book. In 1945, college student Marjorie and her friend have the amazing luck of spending the summer not in dullsville Story City, Iowa, but in the Big Apple! Their miniature apartment is a dream, seeing all the famous stores on Fifth Avenue is a dream, but the biggest dream of all is landing a job at Tiffany & Co! Can you imagine?!
They spend the summer working, window shopping, entertaining visiting sorority sisters, meeting boys, and occasionally going to famous hot spots. Marjorie’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for the glamour of New York is an endearing glimpse into a less jaded, more elegant time. People dressed up to shop. Dessert at a fancy restaurant was a treat. And for a Midwestern girl, the famous stores and skyscrapers of New York were a daily thrill. I found her joy to be contagious because it reflects a delightful appreciation, not pretentious materialism. Marjorie’s enthusiasm for the jewels and china at Tiffany is an extension of her enthusiasm for real quality and distant glamour. It reminded me of how the world has shrunk but human nature is the same – there may be a Tiffany & Co. ten minutes away from me at Stanford Shopping Center so it’s not that exciting, but I gasped OUT LOUD the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower and Hagia Sophia and Red Square (who doesn’t?). Somehow the thrill of seeing people and places you’ve always heard about outweighs any desire to appear sophisticated, and Marjorie perfectly captures that thrill – as a result she sweeps you along in the joy of seeing a famous bandleader or handling the fancy dishes on the second floor, not because she’s saying, “Look – I lead a glamorous life,” but because she’s saying, “Golly!!” How could you not be charmed?
Though this is not Great Literature, Marjorie’s writing style rings with her goodness and earnestness and grounds the memoir in traditional, Midwest values as much as any of the details. I wouldn’t say her reminisces are portrayed through rose-colored glasses – for many, life really was like that. Reading the book was an easy delight and made me yearn for more elegance – for ropes of pearls instead of sweat pants, and doormen instead of outlet malls. Sigh. ...more
This is an intensely interesting examination of the poetry and psychological treatment of three Great War poets – Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, andThis is an intensely interesting examination of the poetry and psychological treatment of three Great War poets – Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Ivor Gurney. Sassoon and Owen were treated at Craiglockhart and returned to the front; Gurney broke down in March of 1918, and while he recovered enough to be discharged from the army by October, he continued to suffer from mental illness and spent the last fifteen years of his life in mental institutions, believing the war was still going on. But don’t despair! This isn’t a book of doom and gloom. Rather it’s an examination of the different ways poetic expression acted as therapy. By returning to the scenes of devastation in their memories and using their imaginations to transform those experiences into art, the poets took control of the uncontrollable. This book traces different aspects of that recovery.
Both the discussions (at times transcripts!) of the poets’ psychological treatments and the analysis of their poetry are accessible – and fascinating beyond description. This is an invaluable source for those interested in World War I poetry, psychotherapy, shell-shock, and the power of creative expression to deal with trauma. An absolute treasure! ...more
It’s a rare day that I become smitten with a 75-year old historian, but that day came when I read the introduction to The Face of Battle. I have severIt’s a rare day that I become smitten with a 75-year old historian, but that day came when I read the introduction to The Face of Battle. I have several of John Keegan’s books, most of them featuring lots of photographs, but this is the one that made him famous – and for good reason. His elegant prose has the right amount of wit and clarity, scholarship and humility, gripping description and hard facts. After an introduction to military historiography that left me – I'm not even kidding – thinking “What a fascinating topic!!” he describes three seminal European battles that took place in the same region: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. I can’t say that you don’t need to be a teeny bit interested in military history to be interested in this, as I do happen to be interested in military history, but I can objectively testify to his eloquence. He describes what it would be like to be a man-on-the-ground combat soldier in each of these battles with the arrows whizzing by, the cannon smoke obscuring the field, and the rain of bullets falling indiscriminately and unceasingly. (I know “rain of bullets” is cliché, but I’m not John Keegan.) And with a considerable understanding born of his years researching and teaching at Sandhurst, he explains what on earth compells the average soldier to endure the misery and danger of combat. To hear him describe the experience of these battles, buy the book – you, too, can know as closely as it’s possible to know what it would be like to fight in another time period. It’s worth far more than $11 and five or six hours just be wowed by his prose and grateful for your life. Plus you’ll know a lot more about these battles than you would by reading anything else....more
Jonathan Shay is a psychotherapist – and impressive amateur classicist – who has spent decades treating Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD. In this fasJonathan Shay is a psychotherapist – and impressive amateur classicist – who has spent decades treating Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD. In this fascinating book, he analyzes what he sees as the moral breakdown of Achilles in terms of factors common to the Vietnam War. The first section of the book outlines these factors: a betrayal of “what’s right”; the shrinkage of the social and moral horizon; grief at the death of a special comrade; guilt and wrongful substitution; and going berserk (a clinical condition, not slang). In each of the chapters he describes these conditions as revealed through years of treating veterans, often quoting transcripts of therapy sessions, and analyzes their presence in The Iliad. In the second section he goes through soldiers’ common reactions to these conditions, again drawing from Vietnam veterans’ accounts, and demonstrates the same reactions in Achilles. It’s convincing and utterly compelling.
I’m no classical scholar, but I have read The Iliad many times and can appreciate his deep understanding and meticulous examination. His book is worth multiple readings. In fact, Achilles in Vietnam has filled a role in my understanding similar to movies of favorite novels, like “Gone With the Wind” – now I can’t read The Iliad without this as context and subtext! I also was stunned by the descriptions of combat in Vietnam — both the conditions of guerilla warfare against the Viet Cong and common U.S. military practices seemed designed to inflict maximum psychological damage on our soldiers. Be forewarned: this is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve studied the Vietnam War then much of this will be familiar. If not, brace yourself; the accounts are from men whose combat trauma was debilitating enough that they sought professional help. Also, Dr. Shay quotes veterans’ words verbatim, and the profanity is almost as stunning as the substance. I have no tolerance for profanity and felt like I needed to wash out my head with a power hose, yet at the same time I couldn’t help feel sorry for both the lack of education that often produces such a low level of language and the obvious crutch that profanity was for these men; if the eloquent can’t find words to describe such horrors, what hope had they? (Not all the interviewees swear four or five times in a sentence; there are distinct levels of language corresponding to levels of education, a fact that the Vietnam veterans I know are quick to assert.) The final section of the book focuses on PTSD and possible healing, with less analysis of Achilles; nonetheless, it’s fascinating reading. ...more