The plot was way too complex. The "theory" of time travel wasn't worth trying to remember, let alone understand, but it was a ripping story and a love...moreThe plot was way too complex. The "theory" of time travel wasn't worth trying to remember, let alone understand, but it was a ripping story and a lovely send up of Victorian Britain. "Three Man in a Boat" AND a dog named Cyril. Victorian food, houses crowded with furniture, boaters and cashmere shawls and all manner of apparel, absent-minded professors, downtrodden servants, spiritualists, trains and telegraphs.... Even an elopement to say nothing of stealing servants and the first ever jumble sale. it was really funny.(less)
Pasternak was the first citizen of the USSR to publish abroad. Doctor Zhivago was considered "anti-Soviet" and Pasternak, though a well known and well...morePasternak was the first citizen of the USSR to publish abroad. Doctor Zhivago was considered "anti-Soviet" and Pasternak, though a well known and well loved poet was thrown out of the Writer's a Union, interrogated by the KGB as a subversive and shunned by friends and neighbors. He gave the manuscript to leftist Italian journalist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who was the first publisher and through whom the novel was made available for translation and publication in many countries long before it was published in Russia.
This book tells that story, along with the story of Pasternak and his friends during that time, and that of a CIA program aimed at using books and culture as a Cold War strategy.
Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who died in 2007, and who spent time in Africa between the late 1950ies and the 1990ies. Africa was not his only b...moreKapuściński was a Polish journalist who died in 2007, and who spent time in Africa between the late 1950ies and the 1990ies. Africa was not his only beat, but when he spent time there he spent time with the people and shared their lives when he could. He was the first Polish foreign correspondent to cover Africa and he was always seriously underfunded compared with those representing the big European and American publications and agencies. What he lacked in funds he made up in ingenuity and a willingness to share in the lives of Africans with the result that he got the big stories (a coup in Zanzibar is the subject of one piece) but also the stories about the little people. He went to visit friends in remote villages where there wasn't enough to eat. He traveled in war zones. He met the dictators and sadists who were independent Africa's first rulers. Once traveling with Greek correspondent in the region of Lake Victoria, he took refuge in a hut where he collapsed, exhausted, into a bunk only to discover a huge Egyptian cobra coiled underneath. He and the Greek threw their weight behind a huge metal container (their only weapon) and tried to crush it. The canister did not cut into the snake and they had to wrestle it to death. He got cerebral malaria, nearly died, and lived with the after affects for years. The pieces in this book are beautifully written, undoubtedly due in part of the translator. Not like journalistic pieces one usually reads, with their pyramid structure and journalistic phrases and short cuts. Kapuściński's scope was broader, from the latest war or coup to serious attempts to characterize African people. He put himself on the line in every piece—it was personal, heartfelt and wise. He engaged seriously with people, didn't just watch from afar or "interview the participants". One learns a great deal about the history of Africa—and why in a sense there was no history until the Europeans started to divide Africa up into colonies and zones of interest. Why there'd never be a history because there were no documents at all, only the oral stories the people told. The chapter on Rwanda is worth the purchase of the book alone: Kapuściński put the genocide in a context which none of the several books I read on the subject of the Rwandan genocide was able to do. Similarly, another long chapter on a visit to Liberia developed a context for the awful civil wars which began when an army sergeant took charge and carved up the President in his bed—without even a plan for what he'd do when he became leader—and was eventually carved up himself. That essay ends when Kapuściński is allowed to travel up country and meet the tribal people (which the ruling Americo-Liberians called aboriginals when I visited in 1965). They are coming into Monrovia across a bridge and Kapuściński sees a naked man with a Kalashnikov, the others carefully stepping out of his way. "A madman with a Kalashnikov" is how he, quite appropriately, ends the essay. Kapuściński's focus in this book is mostly East Africa and the Sahara and Sanhel, a few mentions of West Africa, not much of Southern Africa. Not much about the more "civilized" parts of Northern Africa.(less)
This is my second reading and I enjoyed it soooo much more than the first time when I was impatient at all the pseudo-19th century poetry. I think I l...moreThis is my second reading and I enjoyed it soooo much more than the first time when I was impatient at all the pseudo-19th century poetry. I think I liked it better because I paid more (not less) attention to the poetry and was blown away that Byatt could do that—could not only make up two 19th century poets as characters but could write their poetry for them. I also didn’t take the book all that seriously the first time—finding it fun but “unserious”. I obviously didn’t notice that she prefaced it by those great lines about “romance” from Hawthorne’s introduction to The House of the Seven Gables: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to had he professed to be writing a novel.” A distinction generally lost in our time, but an important one and one that fits this work perfectly; it does not aim at fidelity to the possible or to the probable, but it does aim at the “truth of the human heart”.
I have always been fascinated by the author who builds a novel (or a romance) out of diverse documents which the characters come across, in this case not only the poems of the two poets, but their letters, a few stories retold from parents, journals of those closely involved—his wife and her lover, critical analysis and biography by scholars, etc. Even some fanciful sections where the author imagines events and feelings on the part of 19th century characters that could not have been known, even through the serendipity of finding the documents that were found. Having read a great deal more of Byatt than when I first read this novel, I see this tendency to weave documents into the story as characteristic of her as a writer, used most effectively in her most recent novel, The Children’s Book.
Possession is about two young academics in the 1980s who form a partnership based on a common interest in the two poets whose romance is discovered accidentally in a letter found in a old book, owned by one of the poets, and currently residing in the London Library. It’s a mystery, with clues that lead to a cache of letters in the turret on a dilapidated estate, to Brittany, back England and a metal box buried by the wife of one of the lovers. The story is a “romance” in both senses of the word: a story about love and passion and a book that’s full of coincidence and improbability in everything except its human joy and tragedy and redemption. And of course the two young academics fall in love too, slowly and as believably as their 19th century counterparts. It’s a tale of academic rivalry too, as the scholars jockey for position around "the find" the original pair can’t keep hidden—academic rivalry that rises to high comedy and even farce. I rate it 9/10. (less)
The two strands of this story (the unnamed narrator's story of his meeting with Isaac when they both pretended to go to the University in Kampala and...moreThe two strands of this story (the unnamed narrator's story of his meeting with Isaac when they both pretended to go to the University in Kampala and that of social worker Helen in small town Missouri whose relationship with the mysterious African "Isaac" gradually deepens) work together perfectly with the reader wondering where and how they will come together. The narrator and Isaac inch closer and closer to revolution. The reader is puzzled that the Isaac Helen knows in the other strand of the story is not quite the same person.... So what has happened to him? One of the best novels I've read this year.(less)
My only complaint about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, i...moreMy only complaint about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, is that it ends too soon. That's saying a lot for a 900 page book! But I'd have been happy for it to go on in great detail instead of wrapping up the lives of the major figures relatively quickly after the election of 1912
Goodwin has made a career about writing about American Presidents in the context of the people and ideas of their own time: FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and the homefront in WWII, Lincoln and his “team of rivals” and now the earlier Roosevelt and William Howard Taft as well as S. S. McClure, his magazine and the journalists who would become known as the “muckrackers” (originally a perjorative term used by Roosevelt himself but later a badge of honor for the first and maybe the greatest investigative journalists: Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White).
I was completely engaged by this book which is not a full biography of either President, though at the beginning Goodwin reviews their early lives and that of their wives, but by the end—which is really when the two ex-Presidents made up their quarrel after the explosive and nasty presidential campaign of 1912 where Taft, the sitting President ran for the Republicans, the progressive Wilson (maybe the next President I want to read a bit about) ran for the Democrats, and Teddy Roosevelt ran for a new Progressive Party which he founded—I wanted more. The “bully pulpit” story was over but I'd have listened to more than a single chapter wrapping up the lives of all the characters. (Indeed a whole other book has been written about Roosevelt's trip to The River of Doubt in search of the source of the Amazon.)
The title is significant because Roosevelt was the President who first used his office as a pulpit to raise and “preach” about issues of fairness and concern for all citizens. And “bully” of course was his signature comment on anything he liked. He wanted to break the power of the party bosses and institute popular primaries in all states and to control the power of monopolies like Standard Oil which were controlling their own costs by deals which left small business and the general public at a distinct disadvantage. Enter Ida Tarbell, a remarkable woman, now remembered primarily for her exhaustive study of how Standard Oil controlled the railroads and of course the price of oil. Born in Pittsburgh, with a father who worked in the industry, she made it her life's work to investigate and write about how big corporations used their power and influence to disadvantage everyone else. She was a talented writer who could tackle any subject, including a biography of Napoleon which McClure wanted. She and her colleagues became allies of Roosevelt, first as governor of New York and later as President as he worked to control the power of corporations, even at the considerable risk of alienating fellow Republicans.
The Republican Party was the source of “progressive-ism” (which I theorize got passed to the Democrats maybe about the time of Wilson who defeated both Roosevelt and Taft in 1912 with a pretty progressive platform).
Taft was a president I knew practically nothing about: he was so fat he wouldn’t fit into the White House bathtub and his son, Robert Taft, was a presidential contender when I was a child and first paid attention to politics. In reality, Taft, who grew up in Cincinnati, was a very interesting man, likeable, hardworking, effective, and congenial. He trained as a lawyer and was 100% dedicated to the law, including how to use the law to benefit the people and predatory corporations. He had a successful legal career, was appointed to the Federal Bench for his district and eventually came to Washington to work in the Attorney General's office. That's when he met and became very close friends with Theodore Roosevelt who had similar political beliefs and aspirations.
Taft was an exceedingly nice person probably too nice Goodwin and many others before her have concluded, to be President. And he never wanted to become President. He was smart and ambitious, but his goal was the Supreme Court, not the White House and in the end that's where he ended up as a very successful Chief Justice, after a rather unsuccessful presidency. And he quarreled seriously with Roosevelt, or rather Roosevelt quarreled with him. Taft was not a contentious person.
Roosevelt and Taft and SS McClure and the journalists on his magazine shared a set of common beliefs: the need to provide protection and benefits for all citizens, including the working people and the concomitant need to control corporations on behalf of all the people. Goodwin tells their story brilliantly. The book is a biography of all seven, the two presidents and McClure and his four main investigative journalists, how they worked for each other and sometimes against each other, how the journalists communicated with and aided the President on significant issues that paved the way for important legislation in their own time and later: lowering tariffs, controlling corporations, instituting an income tax and eventually providing what we call today a safety net for all citizens.
It's a timely subject with the Republican party, at least its progressive wing, supporting many of the issues we associate with the Democratic party today and with the progressive Republicans working against their conservative wing, even to the extent of splitting the party and creating a third party. Had it been anyone other than Teddy Roosevelt who was not really interested in a party per se but in getting elected so he could continue his work, that third party might have been successful. It was joined by many of those who felt disaffected by the current establishment, including among others those agitating for women's sufferage.... But Roosevelt was virtually out of control and though his causes were worthy ones and he attracted many followers, he was, in this compaign, mostly bombast and rhetoric (his slogan was “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”) He did nothing but use the “bully pulpit” and when he failed, the party did. But that's another story....(less)
I spent the summer of 1965 in Monrovia, Liberia. My daughter was born there in August. The Peace Corps had sent me in June because the maternity hospi...moreI spent the summer of 1965 in Monrovia, Liberia. My daughter was born there in August. The Peace Corps had sent me in June because the maternity hospital in Sierra Leone had had problems with childbed fever. I worked in the Peace Corps office as office assistant to the doctor and nurse. In the Sinkor section of Monrovia, I went to Cooper’s Clinic. The doctor was a short, middle aged man who came to check on my daughter and me one morning in the wee hours dressed, in a cutaway coat, striped pants and top hat. He was a member of Liberia’s upper class, the Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves who originally settled what was, before the 1950ies, the only independent republic in West Africa. Sierra Leone had a similar class, called Krios, who descended from freed slaves brought from British America, but because Sierra Leone had been a British colony, the Krios hadn’t run the country, only worked in administrative positions under the British. They’d found themselves in the minority, though, with independence in 1961, and the largest tribe, the Mende, held the presidency and other important offices.
I was intrigued when I first heard of Cooper's book. She's an Americo-Liberian, driven from her home by the civil war in Liberia, who's now a reporter for the New York Times. It's easy to find email addresses of Times' reporters so I wrote to her and discovered that she is from "that Cooper family", that she too was delivered by Dr. Cooper in his Sinkor clinic, some months after my daughter.
I read her book almost in one sitting, fascinated. I had this picture in my mind of Monrovia in 1965, sort of like a run down Southern town. With stop lights! (Freetown at the time had only one stoplight). In the back of my mind was a garden party I'd seen once where the guests were all dressed like they stepped off the set of Gone with the Wind--Scarlett O'Hara gowns and cutaway coats. Then there was the scandal that summer, a ritual murder with the latest investigation news every morning in the newspaper until one day President Taubman walked in the closed it all down. Rumor had it that the VP was involved. Sierra Leone seemed to me much safer and more civilized in those days, newly embarked on representative democracy as it was.
Cooper's book took me back to the place, but from an entirely different point of view, that of an upper class girl, from the "Congo people" (In Freetown there's a "Congo River" so named because some of the freed slaves came from the Congo; it was generally assumed, evidently, in both places that all the freed slaves from the western hemisphere had originally come from Congo.) All the rest of the people--those I'd heard Americo-Liberians in a restaurant once refer to as aboriginals--were "country people". Cooper characterizes life in the big house on Sugar Beach as privileged. Like the majority of aristocrats everywhere they had servants and treated them well. The children depended on him and loved them. They recognized that "country people" didn't have their advantages. They didn't have forebearers who'd come over on the equivalent of the Mayflower; they didn't have relatives in the top echelon of the government. A unique advantage Cooper recognized was that she grew up black and privileged, with no taint of either slavery or colonial domination in her past. Not only did she escape the discrimination experienced by blacks in the US, but there wasn't any colonial past which had burnt into the people that white people were superior.
Cooper's idyllic childhood was interrupted when Samuel Doe, a renegade army officer, raided the Presidential Palace, killed the president (he who had been the VP remembered as being silently accused of involvement in ritual murder) and took over the government. Within days, Cooper saw her cousin, the foreign minister, executed on television along with other high government officials. Soldiers came to Sugar Beach where she was living with her mother and siblings, and threatened them (earlier she'd explained that "rogues" often came to steal from the house, but they weren't called "thieves" because that word was reserved for government officials who stole). Now the soldiers were on a drunken rampage and Congo people no longer had the upper hand. Cooper's mother went to the basement with them if they agreed not to rape her daughters. In no time at all, they were all on a plane to America. Where life was not nearly as easy and where everyone asked her where she was from and then "Where's that?" Money was short. The daughters lived alternately with mother and father (now divorced) while one or the other went back to Liberia to see family or salvage what they could from land and houses that had not been confiscated.
Finally after a frightening accident during the invasion of Iraq, where she was embedded with American soldiers on their way from Kuwait to Baghdad, Cooper decided it was time to go back to Liberia. "If I'm gong to die in a war," she thought trapped in a Humvee, "it should be in my own country."
I really connected with this book, partly because I had had some experience in Liberia and partly because Cooper tells her story very well. I was even interested in her childhood fears (of heartmen who'd chase you down and cut your heart out) and her adolescent crushes in a Liberian public school and her attempts to fade into the woodwork in successive American schools. (less)
: I’ve liked what I’ve read of Winton (Cloudstreet and Dirt Music) and this one is no exception. The main character, Scully, is from Freemantle in Wes...more: I’ve liked what I’ve read of Winton (Cloudstreet and Dirt Music) and this one is no exception. The main character, Scully, is from Freemantle in Western Australia. He’s a big, unattractive guy, a laborer whose skills are currently put to use renovating an old Irish farmhouse which had taken his wife’s fancy on a visit to Ireland. His wife, Jennifer, who’s pregnant with their second child, is in Australia with their 7 year-old daughter, Billie, typing loose ends for their planned move to Ireland. On the day—shortly before Christmas—when his family is supposed to arrive at Shannon, Billie is alone on the plane, scared enough that she can’t even talk to tell her father what happened to Jennifer. The airline shows Jennifer arrived at Heathrow but didn’t continue on to Shannon. Scully, panicked and not thinking clearly, takes off after her, Billie in tow, and they end up on a frantic trip to London, a Greek island where they’d lived happily before Ireland, Paris, and Amsterdam. The third person narrative shifts occasionally from Scully to Billie’s point of view, particularly as the former gets more and more out of control (he’s accused of murder (wrongly) in Greece but runs anyway and in Amsterdam he’s arrested, drunk and dirty. At one point—after he’s stolen money from Irma, a good-hearted but screwy woman who’s clearly attracted to him and wants to help, Billie practically takes control, appropriating the money. Scully gets more and more desperate, chasing women on the street who look like Jennifer, while Billie, devoted to her father, doesn’t particularly want her mother back. Gradually, partly through Billie’s point of view, the reader gets a picture of Jennifer, as a woman, more educated than Scully, with a yen to be an artist, but evidently without the talent. Whether she ever loved Scully is unclear, but during what he sees as a romantic period of living in Europe, with Scully working on house renovations with other illegals to get them money, Jennifer’s been seeking out more sophisticated friends, artists and writers and wannabes like herself. The child she carries may not be Scully’s; in fact, there may not even be a child…. Two somewhat blatant associations clarify the meaning of Scully’s desperation. The first is the poem, “On Raglan Road” by Australian Patrick Kavanagh which is quoted in the text. The poem is about a man who “loved too much” and “wooed not as I should a creature made of clay”. An angel who loved like that would lose his wings, concludes the poem. The second reference is to “the riders”, a group of gypsies in Ireland—travelers, that Scully sees and is attracted by early in the novel and then again at the very end when, on New Year’s night he follows Billie out into the snow to the ruined castle near their Irish farmhouse. There some riders have paused, but this time Scully rejects the itinerate life they lead—and presumably the traveling he’s been doing himself. (less)
Truely a book which straddles the fence between a novel and a memoir,and succeeds brilliantly in y opinion. A memoir doesn't always have a central ide...moreTruely a book which straddles the fence between a novel and a memoir,and succeeds brilliantly in y opinion. A memoir doesn't always have a central idea of theme and this one really does: his mother's suicide and coming to terms with it, a process in which I suspect this book played an important part. We learn relatively early that his mother committed suicide when he was 12 and that as soon as he could get away, he left his father and joined to Kibbutz to be another kind a Jew in Israel, not a booking, intellectual ultra observation with roots in Eastern Europe but an energetic, liberal agricultural worker,the kind who, it seemed to him was really going to build the new country of Israel. After all his was born in Israel, lived as a child through the war for independence and played on the borders in Jerusalem as a growing boy. He considered Hebrew his native language. He doesn't say whether he learned Russian but it seems his parents could talk in that language when they didn't want him to understand.
One of the most interesting parts of this European backstory was his mother's school days in a Hebrew school in Rovno (which was first Poland then then Russia (Ukraine). (The government evidently encourage the Hebrew schools, hoping that the Jews would immigrate.) this part is told from the point of view of, her younger sister Sonia who almost becomes the narrator in this part and brings the reader much closer to this part of Oz's heritage than any other. I found it brilliantly managed.
The early part of the book lays out that Eastern European background which was his heritag, the writers, the intellectuals, the books, the ideas as well as the places and the people. Both sides of the family were Zionists who watched and waited and then immigrated to Israel in the 30ies. One brother of his father chose to stay in Vilnius because he had a good university position and hoped for advancement and he and his family disappeared in the Holocaust. They were all relatively poor in Israel and like so many immigrants stuck to their own kind in the new country. (I found the descriptions of Jerusalem and to some extent Tel Aviv where his mother's sisters lived, interesting too since I've never been to Israel.)
Gradually the mother is mentioned more and more but the reader never really understands what happened to her until the very end which is carefully plotted and very emotional—brilliantly sustained suspense and emotion, much more like a novel than a memoir.
I've never read any of Oz's fiction but I probably will now. By the way, in rebelling against his family, he changed his name from Klausner to Oz because it meant powerful, I presume NOT like the Wizard of Oz.(less)
Nesbo is my go-to writer these days. Love his mysteries. Harry Hole is as interesting as Ian Rankin's Rebus. The supporting character always get me fu...moreNesbo is my go-to writer these days. Love his mysteries. Harry Hole is as interesting as Ian Rankin's Rebus. The supporting character always get me further involved in the story. The plots are complex and twisted, not necessary twisted morally (though often that too) but indirect in their working out.(less)
I love George Orwell, but I haven’t read 1984 and Animal Farm since I was 17—the summer before college—and I haven’t read the rest of his fiction at a...moreI love George Orwell, but I haven’t read 1984 and Animal Farm since I was 17—the summer before college—and I haven’t read the rest of his fiction at all. But I love the nonfiction. I taught “Shooting and Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” to countless freshman and not only memorized important passages, but stored away their main ideas, about anti-colonialism and about deliberate obfuscation, among those very most important ideas to me. I recently read Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia and was convinced that Orwell matters significantly. So this book was a natural for me. Hitchens’ writing and his arguments are sophisticated. I read this one like a text at school, looking up relevant stuff, marking passages, writing in the margins. It’s a little book. Hitchen’s goal was not a complete analysis of Orwell so much a plea to take this guy seriously, don’t let this 20th century writer fade away as relevant only to his own time (1903-1950—Orwell died of TB and he might have been saved had he been able to get the appropriate antibiotic from the US in the immediate post-war period). Hitchens seems to think Orwell’s anti-colonial stance his most significant since that’s the first concept he tackles. So do I. I’m positive that “Shooting an Elephant”, which I read first in a Freshman English class myself, colored my view of colonialism, arguments about postcolonial literature, and about the third world generally. Before reading this book I’d have said my own anti-colonial bent was learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa; now I’d say the fire was probably lit by Orwell and that was a huge part of my motivation to join the Peace Corps in the first place. Hitchens goes on to analyze how both the left and the right have used and abused Orwell as well as his ideas about America, “Englishness”, feminism, and anti-Communism. He typically deals not only with Orwell’s relationship with the ideas but how proponents of those ideas deal with Orwell. Finally he analyzes the fiction, convincing me to reread 1984 if not to read all the fiction. He even touches on Orwell and post-modernism in a chapter that not only rescues Orwell from the post-modernists, but causes me embarrassment at my initial enthusiasm for post-modernist analysis of literature and validates my current views that it’s just as well the academic world is getting over that craze. (less)