Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Year in Review

The Year of Reading in Review

Inspired by the movie Julie and Julia, and a couple of blogs that I had read--including 100 Memoirs ( and Read All Day ( – I decided that in 2010 I would read a book a week in four genres, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Spiritual, and Memoir and blog about them. It was an exercise in self-discipline at the beginning. I realized that I felt guilty when I spent time reading; I should be doing something more productive. If I had a purpose for my reading, I could read more, and if I had people who read my blog, then I would be productive. Well, I began reading, and by June, I noticed that I was reading automatically every day, that I loved every minute of it, and that people were beginning to read my blog. Now, I can’t quit; I have too many readers, and I am addicted.

Next year, I am planning to continue reading and blogging. I will migrate to a website in February; one that will be easier for friends to join, make suggestions about their favorite books, and comment on my blog entries. Right now I have a huge stack of books to read, many of them given to me by friends or book agents. I will be very busy reading in 2011.

Here are the guidelines that I have operated under and will continue to utilize:

• All books must have favorable reviews. I read BookMarks monthly, and New York Review of Books and The New Yorker weekly. I try to also read the New York Times Sunday book reviews and the review magazine from the library.

• I try to get as many books as possible from the library.

• I try to accommodate book agents and friends as best I can.

• At least one book a month must be one from the church library, or have been bought for the church library.

• The books must be challenging intellectually; in other words, no romances (which has never been a genre I liked anyway) or other fluffy-type books.

If I think up any other rules, I will post them.

So, here is my year in review. I read 21 fiction books and 12 each of non-fiction, spiritual, and memoir—57 books in all.

Books Read in 2010


1) Shantaram 1/8 Gregory David Roberts

2) American Salvage 1/23 Bonnie Jo Campbell

3) Snow Falling on Cedars 2/5 David Guterson

4) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 2/26 Jamie Ford

5) Shutter Island 3/26 Dennis LeHane

6) Tea Time for the Traditionally Built 4/15 Alexander McCall Smith

7) The Information Officer 5/1 Mark Mills

8) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 5/22 Stieg Larsson

9) The Girl who Played with Fire 5/22 Stieg Larsson

10) The Help 6/4 Kathryn Stockett

11) The Lincoln Lawyer 6/15 Michael Connelly

12) Portuguese Irregular Verbs 6/15 Alexander McCall Smith

13) The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 6/26 Stieg Larsson

14) I See You Everywhere 7/25 Julia Glass

15) The Elegance of the Hedgehog 8/14 Muriel Barbery

16) The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott 9/15 Kelly O’Connor McNees

17) A Visit from the Goon Squad 9/21 Jennifer Egan

18) My Name is Mary Sutter 10/14 Robin Oliveira

19) Love and Summer 11/12 William Trevor

20) Case Histories 11/14 Kate Atkinson

21) Lord of Misrule 12/17 Jaimy Gordon


1) Things Seen and Unseen 1/15 Nora Gallagher

2) A Year of Living Biblically 2/12 A.J. Jacobs

3) If the Church were Christian 3/5 Philip Gulley

4) Holy Stuff of Life 3/30 Heather Murray Elkins

5) Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith 4/2 Anne Lamott

6) Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community 4/26 Henri Nouwen

7) The Cloister Walk 6/11 Kathleen Norris

8) Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential 7/16 Caroline Myss

9) Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything 8/20 Geneen Roth

10) Gilead 9/3 Marilynne Robinson

11) Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal 10/28 Rachel Naomi Remen

12) America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story 12/5 Bruce Feiler


1) The Sisters of Sinal 1/22 Janet Soskice

2) The City of Falling Angels 2/15 John Berendt

3) Three Cups of Tea 2/22 Greg Mortenson

4) I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) 3/12 Richard Polsky

5) Bright Sided 4/8 Barbara Ehrenreich

6) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto 5/14 Michael Pollan

7) This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians can Save US All 7/1 Marilyn Johnson

8) The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature 7/31 Daniel Levitin

9) Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham 8/26 Christopher Heaney

10) The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 10/1 Harvey Sachs

11) Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park 10/21 Marie Winn

12) The Harvard Psychedelic Club 11/27 Don Lattin


1) The Complete Persepolis 1/29 Marjane Satrapi

2) An Unquiet Mind 2/22 Kay Redford Jamison

3) Hiding in the Spotlight 3/22 Greg Dawson

4) The Liar’s Club 4/22 Mary Karr

5) The Happiness Project 5/30 Gretchen Rubin

6) The Summer of the Great-Grandmother 7/7 Madeleine L’Engle

7) Mennonite in a Little Black Dress 7/29 Rhoda Janzen

8) Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead 9/17 Sara Miles

9) Losing Mum and Pup 10/8 Christopher Buckley

10) Stitches: A Memoir 11/9 David Small

11) Finding Oz: How L Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story 12/11 Evan I. Schwartz

12) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 12/24 Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Best books of 2010


1) The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

2) A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

3) Love and Summer, William Trevor

4) “The Girl” Trilogy, Stieg Larsson


1) America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, Bruce Feiler

2) Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne LaMott

3) If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley


1 The Sisters of Sinai, Janet Soskice

2) Bright Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich

3) In Defense of Food, Michael Pollen


1) Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen

2) Jesus Freak, Sarah Miles

3) Complete Persepolis (Santrape)/ Stitches (Small)

Three Books I didn’t particularly like

1) Sacred Contracts (The only book I didn’t finish), Caroline Myss

2) I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), Richard Polsky

3) Shutter Island, Dennis LeHane

Top number of blog views
1) A Visit from the Goon Squad

2) Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

3) Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead

4) This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians will Save Us All

5) Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham

6) The Harvard Psychedelic Club

7) Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Novel

8) The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Plan for next week

Dear friends, as you can see, I completed my goal of reading a book a week. I am proud of myself. Next week, I will post my favorites of the year as well as my least favorite. I will also tell you all the plans for my blog for next year. Stay tuned.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

New York, Vintage Books, 1997

Week 52 Spiritual Memoir

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a memoir of a year in the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French edition of Elle magazine. When he was 43 years old, he suffered a massive stroke which left him completely immobilized in what is called “locked-in syndrome.” This was his diving bell. His mind, on the other hand, was his butterfly. Through his mind, he was able to travel to all the far-flung places he had frequented before the stroke.

The task for the doctors and therapists was to release him from his diving bell in whatever way they could. Because he could move one eyelid, that movement became his communication device. With a speech therapist, they devised a manner of speech. She would read through the alphabet until she got to the letter he wanted; he would blink his eye and she would write the letter down until words and then sentences were formed. They used a frequency alphabet as opposed to an ABC alphabet. In French, the first three letters of the frequency alphabet are ESA.

He was determined to write a book to help explain himself to his children. A young woman named Claude was hired to help him put his thoughts on paper. The result is this small, very profound view of Bauby’s world--the diving bell that encases him and the butterfly of his thoughts. The short chapters tell of flights of fancy, frustrations, the pleasures of visits, and the irony of his life situation. He longs for repartee with his children, but the painfulness of the communication form makes humor difficult. He longs for a good meal, but in his memory, he is able to re-eat some of the best meals he ever had—without the calories. He cherishes his children’s letters, and pictures, and kisses, and kindnesses, and memorizes them so they are repeated over and over in his mind. He says that when someone calls on the telephone, he can listen to what they are saying “to intercept and catch passing fragments of life, the way you catch a butterfly.”

Through this book, the reader understands what they previously could only imagine—the “what ifs” of life. We are forced to imagine ourselves in this situation. Would we respond in such a creative way, or would we descend to anger and bitterness? He does say, “To keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.”

On what level, then, do we appreciate life? If all but our mind were gone, how would we live? As I am writing this, I am trying to remember my favorite meal of all time. Can I remember it in minute detail? Can I savor each morsel? Can I remember the joy on the faces of my companions? To speak of something more mundane, can I remember what I talked about with my husband last night? What we ate for supper? What did I say to my son when I spoke to him on the phone yesterday?

The author died of pneumonia two days after the book was published. His legacy lived on in this small book and in the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that came out in 2007, which is arriving from Netflix at our house today. Reviewers say that the movie captures the essence of the book in a very profound way.

Surprisingly, the book is not painful to read. It is an inspired look at the human spirit at its most basic, the will to survive and the desire to thrive. Somehow, when you are reading this book, the disappointments of the day fall away and you find yourself focusing on the very essence of life.

A review in the New York Times:

An article about Bauby’s children and their mother since the book and movie:

A review of the movie from my favorite movie reviewer, James Berardinelli:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lord of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon

Kingston, NY, McPherson, 2010

Week 51 Fiction

It made the headlines of the local newspaper. A creative writing professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo had won the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule. My ears, of course, perked up. Ah, another book for my list. Last year, two local authors had made the nomination list—Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage and David Small for Stitches. (Both of those books are reviewed on these pages.)

About a week later, Jaimy Gordon appeared for a reading at the downtown library, and I was in attendance. At that point, I knew nothing of the book and nothing about the author, except that the book was published by a very small publishing company and that Jaimy Gordon had been Bonnie Jo Campbell’s teacher.

The story of the creation of Lord of Misrule is almost as interesting as the book itself. For a few years in the late 1960s, Gordon worked at a race track near Baltimore as a horse groom. She wrote a draft or two of the novel in the years following the experience, published a couple of other books, and then submitted this book to the publisher of a previous book. The publisher rejected it, and she put it away in a drawer, taking it out only to make a short story out of a couple of the chapters. It languished in her drawer for 10 years, “a huge lump standing in the way of me and progress.”

Finally, this year, Bruce McPherson, who had published another of her books, forced the book out of her drawer and submitted it in galley form to the National Book Awards committee. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, on to the book, itself. I have to say that I had trouble making sense out of Lord of Misrule. I have no prior experience with racetracks, horses, loan sharks, groomers, or any other part of the scene, so the learning curve was severe. However, about half way through, it all began to click, and I gave up the struggle and immersed myself in the jargon, the plot movement, and the characters.

The book is divided into four parts, each named for one of the horses in the stables of the Indian Mound Downs racetrack in West Virginia. Over the course of a year, the horses are involved in four races, and there are four main characters as well; an old African American groom, a “gypsy” woman owner and trainer, and a young couple trying to make a living as horse owners. Maggie, a college-educated “frizzy haired” girl could easily be a stand-in for the author. Her boyfriend, the horse owner, is a con man in training. Over the course of a year, these horses and these people are involved in racing, feuding, fighting and death.

The horses have as much a role in the story as the people. They have personality and depth of character. The racetrack, too, has personality. “It was a complete world, but it was a flat world too—one pure unmitigated plane of being, all the way to the edge, where you fell off. Then it was all void, all menace.”

The reviewer in the LA Times sums up all these characters in one succinct sentence: “Sort the men from the horses, so similar are their slaveries, their striving for nothing, their tendency to be ruled by lesser animals.”

Part of the beauty (but I also must say, part of the difficulty) of the book lies in the language and dialogue. Gordon calls it “third person limited.” Mostly, you are privy to the thoughts of each of the characters, one voice at a time. The reader has to first figure out who is speaking in each chapter. Particularly confusing were the thoughts of Tommy, the horse owning con man. He thinks in the second person, so all his thoughts about himself are “you.” Lots of horse racing terms are bandied about. Lots of slang. I made the mistake of not reading the definition of a “claiming race” that appears before the book begins. Do read that—it will make all the difference in understanding the book.

I began underlining phrases and thoughts that I particularly felt were beautifully put, such as “blue crucifix eyes of the goat." In describing the horse Mr. Boll Weevil at the gate: “He is looking for a home all right. He’s still looking around that gate like he’s thinking about putting up wallpaper in it, making a down payment on a living room suit, moving in for life.” I could go on and on.

I would suggest that if you want to tackle this book, read a couple of reviews, particularly Jane Smiley’s review in the Washington Post. Additionally, the review in the Women’s Voices for Change website is excellent. That reviewer says, “It is, no more and no less, another of those rare and acute studies of the human condition, timeless, tragic, moving, while being firmly rooted in a place and a time brought to life for the reader’s pleasure."

The Washington Post Review:

The review in Women’s Voices for Change:

The review in the LA Times:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

by Evan I. Schwartz
Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Week    50   Biography
( Read aloud with my husband.)

This morning, on NPR, I was listening to an author talk about why Conan Doyle has remained a premier influence in mystery fiction throughout the century or so since he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. This same question, of course, can be asked about L. Frank Baum and the Wizard of Oz stories. The author Evan T. Schwartz was reading The Wizard of Oz to his 7-year-old daughter and enjoying her wide-eyed amazement at the magic of the story. He realized there might be a book in the details about how the classic got written. Finding Oz, a biography of sorts, is the result. I say “of sorts,” because there is a great deal of speculation involved in Schwartz’s narrative. One reviewer noted that Schwartz prefers “the conjectural to the concrete and never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Schwartz traces the restless life of L. Frank Baum from his childhood to the writing of the book. He “does a fine job of unearthing the origins of Oz, and of portraying Baum as very much a man of his times--the era of the vanishing frontier and the uneasy transition from Victorianism into modernity.” As the author says, Baum crossed paths with much of the national narrative during his life, and Schwartz feels that he filed away all those influences until they appeared in his novel. For instance, Baum’s mother-in-law was the radical feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. Many thought her to be a witch, but to Frank, she was a benevolent mother and a huge influence in his life. The family moved to Chicago just before the Chicago World’s Fair, and many people, including Schwartz, feel that the “White City” in Chicago became the Emerald City. Thomas A. Edison and P.T. Barnum, important personages of the time, may have been the influence for the Wizard.

L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum moved his family (wife Maud, and sons Robert, Harry, Kenneth, and Frank Jr.) many times trying to find a formula for making money that would provide for his family as well as satisfy his soul. He tried theatre, sales, retail, and journalism. His family moved from New York State, to territorial South Dakota, and finally to Chicago where he settled into a career as a journalist. It was in Chicago reporting on the World’s Fair that the stories he had been telling his children began to take form and his first book, Father Goose, His Book,was published. Other published stories followed until he completed his masterwork, The Wizard of Oz.

The actual story of the writing of the Wizard of Oz takes up only one chapter close to the end of the book. Schwartz develops all the influences so fully that you are always saying, “Of course. That seems logical.” All the time, however, you are wondering, “Is that really true or merely conjecture?” He feels that the Baum family was greatly influenced by a trendy religion called Theosophy, a religion that was an amalgamation of Buddhism and other eastern religions, and that the book may have been a result of that spiritual journey.

On another level, Finding Oz is fascinating journey through the years following the Civil War from the perspective of L. Frank Baum, who lived through those days and made the most of it. From the historical perspective, the book is a valuable read. We watched a documentary about the Chicago World’s Fair, Expo: Magic of the White City. We had seen it before, as we were reading another Chicago book about those times—The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. To readers new to the Chicago World’s Fair, these books would serve as great companion narratives, but be sure to watch the DVD, which we got from Netflix. It puts the whole scene into perspective.

My husband, Thell, has been a lifelong fan of the Wizard of Oz, and we have a set of about ten very ancient books. I asked him if he thought the Wizard of Oz would have remained classic children’s literature if not for the 1939 movie. He responded that he thought that the brilliance of the movie fixed itself into the American psyche, and thus we consider the books to be of the same classic mode. Like all good stories, there are many ways to interpret it and many ways to find meaning in it. We were regaled the other evening to the road show, Wicked, a brilliant speculation about the origins of the witches of Oz. There is something about that story!

Here is Evan Schwartz telling about his book on his book’s website:

A review of the book in the Washington Post:

An interview with Schwartz by "The Daily Ozmapolitan":

Sunday, December 5, 2010

America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story

by Bruce Feiler
New York, William Morrow, 2009

Week 49   Religion

Although Bruce Feiler’s book, Walking the Bible, has looked intriguing to me as it sits on the church library shelf, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story is the first of his books that I have read. Feiler uses a chatty style, with a lot of interviews and first-person travel to support his thesis, which is that American history is full of the story of Moses and the Exodus.
He outlines three themes of the Moses story and how they have influenced American life. The first theme is the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land. The second theme is the tension between freedom and law (liberty and order). The final theme is the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden.

To this end, he tells several stories of Moses in America beginning with the Pilgrims and their journey to the Promised Land. He then moves on to stories about George Washington and liberation, and Harriet Tubman and slavery. A major chapter concerns Abraham Lincoln, who comes to mind, of course, as the Moses of his generation. The last major story is about Martin Luther King and his sermon the night before his death—a Moses who did not get to the Promised Land. Along the way, he discusses the symbolism of the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, and even Superman. One interesting side story concerns Cecil B. DeMille and his creation of the movie, The Ten Commandments.
It is fascinating to read about the many, many times in our history that Moses and the Exodus stories have been part of the rhetoric of the great speeches of American history. “The promised land,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “let my people go,” “Uncle Tom.” Feiler speaks of slavery, freedom, and covenant as being aligned with Egypt, Red Sea, and Sinai. Because the story of Moses transcends one particular religion—in ways the story of Jesus cannot—it can be told again and again, can be applied to many different scenarios, and can even be used in two conflicting situations. He suggests that the Moses story was used by both the North and the South prior to the Civil War. The South used the story to point out that Moses delivered the law to the people with a set of rules to be obeyed. They emphasized that slavery was maintained throughout the story. The North spoke of the freedom aspects of the journey and the fact that all people are created equal. He says, “If North and South could not agree on the same Bible, they could not sit in the same pews, and if they couldn’t sit in the same pews, they couldn’t stay in the same union.” “What started in religion happened next in politics.”

This is not an exhaustive study, nor is it academic or intellectual. After I read it, I wondered why Feiler chose to discuss Cecil B. DeMille but not Brigham Young. Perhaps that was too big a can of worms! At the same time, I believe that he made his point. Moses is a better model for America than Jesus, because his story has universality to it with broad themes and is the one Bible story that most Americans know and can relate to. One can invoke Moses’ name without being called religiously biased. I kept seeing the men’s book study group at church reading it for it has great potential for book discussion groups.

I was amused that concurrent to reading this book, I was reading my new copy of The New York Review of Books (December 9), which included a review of the Stewart/Colbert rally in Washington. It contained a portion of Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of the rally when he spoke as himself and not his character. He said, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.” In the same issue, an article about Glen Beck quotes him calling for a third great awakening because “God is not done with you yet, and he is not done with man’s freedom yet.” So, the story of Moses lives on.

A review in the Washington Post:

An interview on CNN:

Bruce Feiler’s website:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Please wait for me!

Dear friends, I am late with my blog this week. I will have it up on Saturday night Dec. 4 or at the latest on Sunday. The book is America's Prophet by Bruce Feiler and it's good enough to wait for.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Harvard Psychedelic Club

By Don Lattin

New York, Harper One, 2010

Week 48 Non-Fiction

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is an absolutely delightful account of the invention of the 1960s-era psychedelic movement and four of the men who were involved—Timothy Leary (of course), Huston Smith, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Andrew Weil.

Timothy Leary
Richard Adkins (Ram Dass)
Lattin has monikers for each of these men, whose lives he follows during this time: Timothy Leary is called the Trickster, Richard Alpert, the Seeker, Huston Smith, the Teacher, and Andrew Weil, the Healer. For these four men and others on the periphery of the movement (names such as Aldus Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and William S. Burroughs), it all began with some mushrooms. Timothy Leary was a psychology researcher at Harvard along with Richard Alpert. They had both had experience with sacred mushrooms, and later LSD, and they believed that all kinds of society’s ills could be solved by using these drugs to reform behaviors. Huston Smith, a Methodist minister and religious scholar was interested from the standpoint of religious experience, and Andrew Weil was an undergraduate Botany major, who was also interested in holistic healing.

Huston Smith
Leary and Alpert had the OK from Harvard to experiment with LSD on graduate students, and the very first time they gave LSD to a group was on Good Friday of 1962 in a small sanctuary at Marsh Chapel on the campus of Boston University. Huston Smith had gathered a group of graduate students and seminary students from BU, Andover Newton, and Harvard. While the traditional Good Friday service was being held in the large chapel upstairs, a Good Friday of an entirely different sort was being held in the basement sanctuary.

This story was quite incredible to me. I was at Boston University School of Theology just three years later and never once heard about the Good Friday experiment. I knew about LSD being available on the Quad outside of the chapel, but not about that infamous day. I have emailed a friend from graduate school to ask her if she remembered anything. We’ll see what she says. Maybe I was just too na├»ve and too in love with a farm boy from Indiana to know about such things.

Andrew Weil
It wasn’t long before the scientific experiments with LSD began to include a lot of recreational use and Leary and Alpert entered a whole different realm, an East Coast version of the scene that was developing in San Francisco. Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard when Andrew Weil told the Harvard Administration that they were giving LSD to undergraduates. At that point, the illegality of drugs became a major issue, and the scientific nature of therapy using LSD and other psychotropic drugs lost its momentum. Lattin says: "One of the ironies of this story is that the excesses of Leary and Dass in the whole LSD crusade prompted this backlash, not just against drugs as recreation, but a backlash against serious scientific research into what beneficial uses they have. And not just LSD. There are dozens of designer psychedelics that have been developed: ecstasy, MDMA, stuff most people had never heard of. Only now, 50 years later, is there research on their use for the treatment of depression, posttraumatic syndrome, alcoholism, end-of-life use for people who are facing their own mortality. Even Harvard is studying LSD again, with government money. There's been a whole renaissance of serious, reputable, legitimate research into psychedelic drugs; it's taken that long to get over Leary."

Lattin follows these four men through the next few years. Leary became the guru of the psychedelic movement with the mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Alpert became a guru of another sort when he realized that one couldn’t find wholeness with LSD and found solace in Hinduism and Buddhism. He changed his name to Ram Dass and gathered many followers through the years. Huston Smith remained a renowned scholar of world religions and wrote a signal book on the subject, The World’s Religions. Andrew Weil is respected in the field of holistic healing and is a purveyor of vitamins and natural foods.

Three of the four are still alive. Huston Smith is 91 and has just written his memoirs. Ram Dass is 89 and remains a teacher via the Internet. Andrew Weil is 67 and still very active in his businesses. All were interviewed for this book. Timothy Leary died in 1996.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a trip down memory lane, and certainly for anyone of my generation, it is a fun read. It is full of interesting characters and stories. When Leary was arrested for possession of marijuana, G. Gordon Liddy was the federal marshal involved. John Lennon wrote Leary’s campaign song when Leary ran for Governor of California – Come Together! There is lots of invented dialogue, but Lattin did interview many of the survivors of the sixties, and he apparently had enough experience with LSD as a young man to know what he is writing about.

Is this a profound or important book? No, of course not. Is if a fun read? For sure! I found a short review of it in The New York Review of Books which convinced me to read it.

A review in the New York Times:

An interview with Don Lattin in Time Magazine:,8599,1952812,00.html

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

New York, Back Bay Books, 2004

Week 47 Fiction

I bought Case Histories two or three years ago and began to read it twice. I frankly don’t know why I stopped, but it sat buried in my pile of “to read” books until I dragged it out last week. I wanted to read a mystery as a means of escape. This book did not deserve to be buried. It should have been read long ago, but then it wouldn’t have had a place on the blog.

It is anything but a formulaic murder mystery. First, the detective, Jackson Brodie is a gem of a character, peripatetic and idiosyncratic. (How about those words!) Second, the victims and those surrounding them are equally intriguing. And third, the book is very funny in spots, which is rather unique considering how grisly some of the crimes are.

The first part of the book is the set-up. Jackson Brodie, a former police detective and now a private investigator, is hired to bring closure to three cold cases that the police have long since given up. One is the mysterious disappearance of a toddler, the second the unsolved murder of a teenaged office worker, and the third is the search for a girl whose mother is a convicted ax murderer. Jackson, who is the divorced father of a ten-year-old girl himself, takes all these victims to heart as he seeks to bring closure to each of the families.

Luckily for the reader, the chapter headings tell who the chapter is about and when the action took place. Otherwise, it is a bit hard to fathom exactly where you are in the narrative. Much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, there is quite a bit of movement from the past to the present and back, but like a good mystery, seemingly wandering plots become tied up at the end.

There is also a lot of coincidence that in the hands of a less-talented writer might cause the reader go “Oh, yeah! Like that’s going to happen.” But it is all so skillfully woven that the reader never once doubts the coincidences. As the Washington Post reviewer mentions, “In a mystery where the dead bodies turn out to be far less important to the story than the survivors who mourn them, the coincidences seem almost mystical: markers of a grand, melancholy design built from the sorrows of anyone who has ever lost a loved one and never gotten over it.”

The families of the victims are a remarkable set of characters, each one so finely drawn that the reader could almost sketch them on a piece of paper. As readers of murder mysteries know, this is a rare thing in this genre, especially when there are this many stories being told. Some of the characters are downright funny, especially the two middle aged sisters, who had been young girls when their little sister disappeared. Their bickering and flirting with Jackson brings on some delightful chuckles. The New York Times reviewer notes, “ Although solutions and surprises abound, in Case Histories Atkinson is less interested in detailing the steps of an investigation than in exploring the rough and tumble that happens along the way. Her humor -- and she is a very funny writer -- is the sort that comes from being able to see the way happiness and sadness can emerge from the same situation. Her reach is certainly long enough to touch cruelty and grief, but it also extends far in the opposite direction -- all the way to joy.” And the Washington Post reviewer says, “Kate Atkinson...seems to have intuited that the most compelling mystery of all isn't necessarily whodunit, but rather howtodealwithit.”

Kate Atkinson had written several novels before Case Histories, including the Whitbread Award winner, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but the detective Jackson Brodie was a character worth exploring further, and so there are three other Brodie mysteries, including One Good Thing, When Will There Be Good News and the soon-to-be released, Started Early, Took My Dog. Coming, as well, is a BBC One television series called Case Histories.

Here is the New York Times review quoted above:

And the review in the Washington Post:

Her website:

and a YouTube of her reading about Jackson Brodie:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Love and Summer

By William Trevor
New York, Viking, 2009

Week 46 Fiction

I am always amazed when an author comes into view that I know nothing about—such is the case with William Trevor, an Irish author of great renown, 82 years old. I first learned of Love and Summer in the pages of Bookmarks Magazine, where all the reviewers gave the book highest marks.

This is a small book—only 224 pages—about a small place in Ireland during a much simpler time—the late 1950s. One might consider the characters quite ordinary small town people, yet they all have complex life histories, and the plot, while quiet and contemplative, is also thick and dense.

The characters are those that you would expect in a small town, the businessman, the nosy busybody, the local character, the cleric, the farmer with a tragic past, the innocent young woman, and the stranger in the village. One would expect that these characters would collide and interact; this is the nature of pastoral-type novels. Yet, Trevor fills these characters with so much longing, so much loneliness, and, as one reviewer suggests, so much hope, that this book is compelling and enlightening. The New York Times reviewer says “(Trevor)…has somehow turned the nondescript and the habitual into the exceptionally vivid and particular.”

I especially liked the character of Miss Connulty, the “spinster” who has just inherited the local boarding house. She is a deeply unhappy, unfulfilled woman who sees all and knows all. Yet she, like all the characters in the book, has a past. She had an affair as a young woman with a salesman who boarded at their house. She became pregnant and went to a distant city to have the baby, who was then adopted. She sees the young wife Ellie meet up with the young stranger in town, Florian, and instinctively knows that there will be trouble. She tries to warn Ellie that no good is going to come from their meeting by telling Ellie, “Love is a madness.” But in a stroke of genius on the part of the author, Miss Connulty does not expose the lovers, as one would expect, but makes plans to pick up the pieces and save Ellie when the affair falls apart, as she knows it will.

By the time the simple plot moves to its inevitable climax, the reader has so much invested in the characters that there is no stopping—it has to be read in one sitting. Once done, there is a big sigh as you realize that you have just finished a masterpiece with no grand finale, no conclusion, but just life at its richest.

I lived in a very small town for 18 years and these characters ring very true for small town living, where much of life is in the details. One reviewer says: “He (Trevor) makes the ordinary come alive through rich details accompanying everyday habits.” There can be a great deal of comfort in small town living that comes from knowing your neighbors very well, knowing their habits and their circumstances. What is not comfortable about small town life is that your neighbors know you very well, your habits and your circumstances. But the characters in Love and Summer draw their strength from the sense of community, and for all their sadness and longing, this is where they want to be.

William Trevor has been called one of the finest prose stylists writing today. Other books in his lexicon include, The Story of Lucy Gault, Death in Summer, Fools of Fortune, and Cheating at Canasta, a highly acclaimed collection of short stories.

Here is a review in the Washington Post:

An interview from the BBC:

The New York Times has a list of resources about the author. Very helpful:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stitches: A Memoir

By David Small

New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009

Week 45Memoir

David Small, known for his prize-winning children’s books and book illustrations, has created a masterpiece of a memoir in a graphic novel format. He says, “I am an artist, and this is a book about being voiceless…When you have no voice, you don’t exist.”

Small divides his memoir about his “Soviet Bloc” of a childhood into parts relating to his age when the events happen: “I Was Six,” “I Was Eleven,” “I Was Fourteen,” and “I Was Fifteen.” Through black and white drawings, shaded in grays, with very few words, Small tells the story of a family where silence reigns, where love is never shown, and where explanations are never  given.

His mother is a 1950s housewife, his father a radiologist, and his older brother is the usual bullying brat of a big brother. Here are the bare bones of Stitches. David was small, sensitive, and prone to infections. X-rays were the new big thing, and his father as a radiologist used them to “cure” David of his sinus infections. When he was eleven, he developed a lump in his neck that was diagnosed as a cebaceous cyst. His parents decided to ignore the doctor’s recommendation that the cyst be removed claiming that it would be too expensive to remove, so David lived with it for the next three years. However, when he was fourteen, the cyst was finally removed, and along with it, David’s thyroid and part of his vocal cords. David was left voiceless for a prolonged period of time, but more insidiously, he was never told that he had cancer. The next year was a nightmare for David, and he began to act out his pain and anger, causing his parents endless frustration, and contributing to David’s increasing isolation and psychosis. Finally, at age fifteen, his parents took him to an analyst, who Small portrays as the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. This dear man helped him realize that it is not David who is flawed, but his parents and his entire family, and that he has a right to be angry for his parents not telling him about the cancer. The climax of the book comes when his father tells him that he was to blame for what happened to David because the cancer had been caused by the prolonged exposure to the x-rays.

Small understands the concept of telling a story without words. When he describes how his father reveals the huge secret, the drawings go on for several wordless pages, and the pain is searing. In another amazing sequence, Small illustrates with rain the tears that flowed when he began to understand that the pain of his life was not his fault, that his mother was incapable of loving, and that he had not been told the truth his whole childhood. The viewer (reader) is absolutely moved to tears as the rain in the drawings eventually subsides.

It is so evident that Small has bared his soul in Stitches. In one drawing, little boy David is drawing on a big piece of paper on the floor and in the next two drawings, he is sucked down into the paper. In an interview, he says that he had so much more that he could have told, but that he had to continually edit the story down until it was a manageable length. A short chapter about Small’s adult life, and an equally short explanation with a couple of photos, helps the reader understand a little better about why his childhood was so unfortunate.

David Small and his wife, the author Sarah Stewart, live just south of Kalamazoo, and are frequent visitors to our community. I saw them last at a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. Small won the Caldecott Award for the book, So You Want to Be President? in 2001 and is an honor book winner for the same award with a book he wrote with his wife, The Gardener.

Like Persepolis, which I reviewed earlier this year, graphic books can tell a story in a very profound way. In discussing this, one reviewer suggests, “Such moments remind us of the emotional power and immediacy of drawing.”

I highly recommend Stitches. It is an amazing book, the winner of several awards, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Here is a review in the Washington Post:

A very good interview in the website, The New Gay:

David Small’s website:

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Memory of Evelyn Dack, My Mother

Evelyn Miriam Stodghill Dack
Mar. 18, 1920-October 21, 2010

She comes sailing on the wind, her wings flashing in the sun
On a journey just begun, she flies on.
And in the passage of her flight,
Her song rings on through the night.
Full of laughter, full of light.
She flies on.
(Gordon Light)

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

By Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
New York, Penguin, 1996, 2006

Week 44    Spiritual

Isn’t it amazing how sometimes things fall into your lap with absolute perfect timing. Such is the case with the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, which was lent to me by a friend. As you know, I have been spending a great deal of time with my mother and preparing for her death. Well, she died on Thursday, Oct. 21, and because I was reading this book, it became a great comfort to me. Additionally, I have recently been hired to prepare reviews of books and journal articles in the mental health field for a new website, and this book will be my first review, because I am convinced that every mental health professional needs to have a deep understanding of the concepts Remen presents. On this topic, Remen says, “According to the Buddhist understanding of auspicious coincidence, all circumstances can be brought to the spiritual path. Everything that happens in our lives, whether positive or negative, can serve to awaken us to the nature of the world. But occasionally, events cluster in particular ways that give us a glimpse of the deeper structures of reality, and suggest that time and linear causality may not be the ultimate way in which the world is ordered.”

The reader has to know a bit about Rachel Remen in order to understand Kitchen Table Wisdom fully. She is a doctor but also a patient. She has suffered from Crone’s disease all her adult life. Thus, she has great empathy for people facing disease and death. As a young physician, she realized that she had not been equipped to help patients on any level other than the physical, and she felt a great loss. When she tried to relate to her patients on a more humane level, she was criticized. Thinking there must be a better way, she began to develop a psychological approach for people with life-threatening illnesses and for the physicians who treat them. Thus she became one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body health field.

Kitchen Table Wisdom is a compendium of her wisdom about life, illness, family, death, and all the other components of the mind/body connection. The book is constructed as a series of short chapters, on a variety of topics, with each section on a basic topic of the mind-body connection. The chapters are basically stories that Remen has collected in her lifetime of dealing with people. She believes in the concept of story, and that in order to understand someone and help someone, you must know their story. So, she tells her story, the stories of her patients, and the stories of the doctors that she trains to be compassionate healers. Each short chapter is self-contained. One reviewer commented that it is great bedtime reading, because the reader goes to sleep filled with words of comfort and healing.

The edition of the book I read is the tenth anniversary edition, and its wisdom is so enduring that I imagine there will be a twentieth anniversary edition. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with what life is presenting us—and I guess that would be everyone. Here are a couple of interesting concepts:

Remen quibbles with the concept that “life is fragile.” She says that life is impermanent, but not fragile. “Accidents and natural disasters often cause people to feel that life is fragile. In my experience, life can change abruptly and end without warning, but life is not fragile.” “That tenacity toward life endures in all of us, undiminished, until the moment of our death.”

Another thought: “Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.” She talks a lot about doctors and their basic belief that life is broken and it is their job to fix it. It reminded me of the visit my husband Lee’s oncologist paid to us on the day before Lee died. He had tried and tried to “fix” Lee; it had not happened. He put his arm around me and broke down in sobs, and I comforted him. He left his practice shortly after that and became a medical missionary, having realized that he was the one that needed healing.

Well, I could go on and on. This is a beautiful book, spiritual on many levels. When the reader finishes the book, they are blessed in so many ways and know that for all its impermanence, life is a marvelous journey until it is over. As one reviewer wrote, “Kitchen Table Wisdom shows us that a good story is like a compass of life’s journey, and reminds us of the power and joy of being fully human.”

Review on a mental health website:

Review in Journal of Psychiatry:

Interview with Rachel Remen:

Rachel Remen’s website:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park

By Marie Winn
New York, Vintage Departures, 1999
Week 43    Non-Fiction
For those of us who live in areas where nature surrounds us, the thought of “nature” in New York City’s Central Park seems a bit absurd. Marie Winn’s Red-Tails in Love was my first exposure to the magnitude of nature that can be found in that urban oasis.

Specifically, the book tells the ongoing saga of “Pale Male,” a red-tail hawk that arrived with a mate in Central Park in the mid-1990s. He mated with a much larger female, and a bird-watching, binocular and telescope frenzy arose among the Central Park bird watchers. The frenzy spilled over into the community at large. Multiple efforts ensued to protect the birds, and as the story continued into the second and third years, Fifth Avenue residents such as Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, and Glenn Close became involved.

The birds defied all nest building logic and built their nest year after year on a building across Fifth Avenue from the park. Watchers had a regular bench at the edge of the park, and during the nesting season, the “regulars” as they were called manned the bench during all the daylight hours every day. Marie Winn, whose career has been primarily as a nature writer, joined naturalists from the Museum of Natural History, ornithologists, photographers, and others from all over the city who became enthralled with the bird’s love story. Jaded city dwellers and tourists alike clambered to look through the telescope an astronomer set up.

I was fascinated not just by the story of the birds but by the community of bird watchers that emerges from the tale, as well. People who don’t really know each other except for their love of birds form alliances to take care of the birds. Winn doesn’t waste time telling about the personal histories of the watchers; it isn’t important, and my guess is that she probably didn’t know much personal history. What is important is the mutual love for nature and birds.

Winn includes descriptions of all the various aspects of nature watching in Central Park. Who would believe that Central Park remains a major migratory path for dozens of types of birds and waterfowl? Additionally, how did the raccoons and other larger mammals (we know how the rats got there!) find this oasis in the midst of the urban wilderness?

This is a book that I would never have picked up on my own; thank goodness a book club member chose it for our October read. We all loved it, and the discussion flowed easily. Be sure to find the 10th anniversary edition, because it contains an update on Pale Male. Also, there is an entire Pale Male website with daily images of Pale Male. I couldn’t tell if this was the original Pale Male or one of his descendents. I have included October 20’s photo.
As a book side note, a young movie maker arrived in New York at about the same time as Pale Male. He was searching for a movie idea, and wandered into Central Park on one of the first nesting days. AHA! He had his idea, and on November 24, his movie, The Legend of Pale Male, opens in New York City. Here is the movie’s website:

Following my usual website listings, I have included an experience that I had with cardinals. I remembered the experience as I was reading Red-Tails in Love and was inspired to write it down as a way of retaining it. Please indulge me in this.
A review in the Smithsonian Magazine. I have followed the url with a quote from that article.
"Between the lines, this melodrama about nesting hawks is really about how wildness persists, even amid concrete and glass and jackhammering. It is about a tough town’s politesse, giving the winged newcomers space, not getting in their face. And so it is a hopeful book. We learn that even urban sophisticates will trudge into the park in midwinter to put out seeds and suet. As one Regular said of the hawks, “Aren’t we luck to see this.”

Marie Winn’s website:

A transcript of a PBS show:

A cardinal moment. (2002)

A pair of cardinals made a nest in the cedar tree beside the pool on the patio. All that spring, we watched as the cardinals made the nest and the female laid three eggs. After several weeks of tending the nest, three little heads were visible poking out of the top of the nest.

One day during the second week of June, I was in the swimming pool in the late afternoon when I heard a great commotion and looked over at the nest. All three hatchlings were out on a branch of the cedar tree, hopping around and chirping. They seemed to be signaling that they were ready to move.

On the other side of the pool the mother cardinal perched on a branch of the white pine tree calling to her young. The hatchlings called back. The mother flew back to them, pushed each of them gently to the end of the branch, and then flew over to her original perch. The hatchlings continued their hopping and chirping. The mother acted in the same way several times, flying back and forth over the pool, calling to her young encouragingly. It became obvious that all the birds were quite anxious—why wouldn’t these birds fly like their mother wanted? It appeared to me that the hatchlings were afraid to fly over the water.

Mother Cardinal came up with another plan. She started making a different call, more shrill and persistent. Before long, another female cardinal arrived on the scene. She replaced the mother cardinal on the white pine, and the mother crossed the pool to her three hatchlings in the cedar tree. On one side of the pool, the surrogate mother called while the real mother tried to move the birds. The hatchlings were having none of it. They continued their agitated hopping and chirping, but they would not budge from the protection of the cedar tree.

Enter the cat. While I had been trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible at the corner of the pool, Meezer, the cat, had been asleep under a nearby bush. He had awakened from his afternoon nap to a cacophony of bird calls. He stretched, yawned, and made his way across the lawn to the pool.

In the next instant, a huge outcry arose. The female cardinals began squawking in unison and flapping their wings. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two male cardinals swooped down and began dive-bombing the cat, flapping their wings, and shrieking their warnings. I watched for a moment, then scrambled out of the pool, gathered up the cat and went into the house, removing the immediate danger.

I changed into my clothes and went back outside. The nest and the branches of the cedar tree were empty as were the branches of the white pine. The scene was serene and quiet. The cardinal’s mission had been accomplished.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter

By Robin Oliveira

New York, Viking, 2010

Week 42 Fiction

Robin Oliveira embarked on an adventure with a steep learning curve when she envisioned the young woman named Mary Sutter who she created for her first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. Not only did she not know much about the Civil War, the setting for the book, but she knew very little about nursing, surgery, pharmacology, obstetrics, or all the other details that are key to this novel’s setting and plot.

Oliveira says, “through it all, there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war.” I think it took a courageous woman to take on the huge task of writing such a book, even as she created the courageous woman who is Mary Sutter.

Mary Sutter is a midwife, the latest in a long line of midwives, living in a time when all babies were delivered by midwives. (Trivia alert: the first President to be born in a hospital was Jimmy Carter.) However, being a midwife is not enough for Mary. She wants to be a surgeon, either by going to medical school or by apprenticing herself to a surgeon. This is not to be, however; in the mid-1800s until the Civil War begins, women have no place in the surgery. When the first troops are called up, Mary sees her chance and goes off to Washington, where the wounded are to be taken, to do whatever she needs to do to learn surgery and to be of service. Dorothea Dix is calling for women to come and learn nursing as it had been taught by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that the surgery she will learn is the amputation of limbs. She also learns about the prevention of serious disease and death. When she finds a surgeon who will help her achieve her goal, she implores him: “Teach me everything you know. I want to understand what makes the body work. I want to see what you do, how you do it. I want to hear what you think. I want to know which medicine to give for what condition. I want to change dressings, see the wounds, understand why the boys are dying, how to make them well. Not just after a battle, but all the time. Every day. At your side.”

As the war progresses and men by the thousand are dying, Mary remains in the thick of it, meeting among others Clara Barton, President Lincoln, and his assistant John Hay. She helps a doctor research the causes of dysentery and other wartime diseases and applies her midwife’s standards for cleanliness and orderliness to the battlefield hospital. In one horrendous scene she has to make the decisions as to which wounded soldiers will live by getting on the train to Washington to be treated, and which soldiers will be left behind to die.

Although all doesn’t end well (her family suffers some excruciating losses), Mary survives the war, returns home to Albany and finds love and purpose for her post-war life.

The reader is amazed by how the book is so comprehensively researched down to the smallest detail. It is not for the faint of heart, however, and I think that I learned more about the casualties and deaths of the Civil War than I cared to know. This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and this book is sure to find a place among the other books about this time. That it is about a woman makes it all the more valuable.

During my grandson’s 10-year-old adventure, we visited Frederick MD and toured the battlefields at Fredrick and Antietam, both scenes in the book, My Name is Mary Sutter. Maxwell bought a Union cap at the National Park bookstore and ran through the fields, shooting a tiny GI Joe size gun at imaginary enemies. When we left, he was ecstatic about the adventure of it all. My Name is Mary Sutter certainly removes the romance of war from the reader’s memory and allows you only to feel the pain. Frankly, there were moments when I only wanted the book and the war to be over.

It is a story well told; the characters are believable, the plot compelling, and the story-line filled with the detail that lovers of historical fiction crave. Some of the scenes will stick in my memory for a long time. I can highly recommend this book for readers during this Civil War sesquicentennial.

Some interesting reviews from the Good Reads blog:

An interview with Robin Oliveira:

Robin Oliveira’s website:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

By Christopher Buckley

New York, Twelve, 2009

Week 41     Memoir

An audio book read by the author.

The only child of a famous couple, Christopher Buckley lost both of his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley Jr. within the space of a year. His father, of course, was the famous journalist, novelist, and “lion of the right,” in the words of his son. “Pup” as Christopher called him, was the founder of the conservative movement, the founder and editor of The New Republic and host of Firing Line for 32 years. “Mum” was a leading New York socialite and hostess par excellence. Christopher says his mother “took possession of a room and possession of her husband.”

Buckley recounts the fateful year (2007-2008) with love and humor, and intersperses the difficult narrative of illness, death, and funerals with stories from his childhood and insight into his upbringing, which, needless to say, was not like yours or mine. His relationship with his parents was a bit difficult, but there was a great deal of love within the family, although Christopher suggests that his parents did not speak to each other about a third of the time. He discusses caustic letters and emails that were sent between father and son. And in one of the most touching moments of the book, Christopher strokes his dying mother’s hair and says, “I forgive you Mum. I forgive you.” The reader has the impression that a lot of family business did not make it into this memoir.

Among his better memories are sailing trips he made with his father across the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as a few more ill-fated jaunts. Buckley says that his father, like all great men, wanted things to go his way, and that included taking sailing trips in “perfect storm” weather—just because he had made up his mind to go sailing. Other funny stories concern his mother’s fabrications that caused her son’s eyes to roll on more than one occasion, including the times his mother told guests that the King and Queen of England were frequent visitors to her childhood home of Vancouver, British Columbia. The way in which the author intersperses these stories with the grittier details of death and funerals makes the memoir at once funny and poignant.

He discusses in detail planning both funerals, and the reader warms to his concern about doing things right. His desire is to honor these remarkable people, while at the same time exert his independence. The thing I like about his approach with this book is that he has few illusions about his parents—he is proud to be their son, but he is also an author who knows a good story when he sees one.

Christopher Buckley is a well-known author in his own right (or left since he supported Obama in the last election.) Among his many books are Thank you for Smoking and Supreme Courtship, which I listened to on an audio book. He is a satirist and observer of politics and Washington. I laughed all the way through Supreme Courtship. One of the characters is so very much like Sarah Palin, yet the book was written before Palin arrived on the scene. He says he “learned the English language at the knee of a master.” He attributes his sarcasm to his Mother who could stop any conversation with a few choice words.
For those of us who have elderly parents, there is much to appreciate in this memoir, including the utter helplessness that comes from not being able to make a bad situation better. Buckley devoted much of this last year to his parents, staying in his childhood room in the family home in Stanford CT, getting up at all hours of the night to soothe his bewildered father or rush to the hospital to care for his mother. I kept thinking how lucky he was that there was enough money available to keep his father’s dignity intact, although he gives intimations of his father’s self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

One of the best parts of the audio book is hearing Buckley read it himself. Because he knows the subjects of his book so well, he can mimic perfectly the caustic sarcasm of his mother’s voice and the imperious superiority of his father’s. His voice warms as he relates his father’s triumphs—finishing a column in a few minutes or a book in two weeks. And when his voice cracks during the last few sentences of the book, my heart broke for “the orphan,” as he called himself. I cried for all of us who loved our parents and whose loss has made us “orphans” as well.

This article in the Washington Post tells a bit more of the story of Buckley’s book, including some of the warts on his family history.

Book review in the New York Times:

Video interview with Christopher Buckley

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

By Harvey Sachs

New York, Random House, 2010

Week 40 Non-Fiction

Along with many other appreciators of classical music, I am a person who loves Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so I was intrigued to find this new book, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs. It was just what I needed; an overview of the symphony from a cultural, historical, musical, and personal perspective without being outside the scope of interest of a non-professional musician.

I first met Beethoven as an eight year old playing Fur Elise and feeling like a real piano player. For most young piano players, Fur Elise is a transformative event. “Finally, I get to play real music!” Listening to the Ninth Symphony, however, requires a more adult comprehension. Harvey Sachs tells about his own love affair with the symphony as a young teenager and his recurring fascination with the music throughout his long career as a musician, music conductor, and music writer. That personal history becomes the footnote (or postlude) to the book and the driving force for his writing. This is his ninth book, including biographies of Toscanini and Rubinstein.

The first performance of the Ninth Symphony occurred on May 7, 1824, in Vienna, Austria. The details of Sachs’ book revolve around that event. He looks at it from four perspectives: the perspective of the composer, the historical context in which it was written, the listener, and the composers who inherited its legacy. He includes his own experience with the music as a postlude. It is a satisfying format, very readable and not too technical. He lets other biographers delve into greater detail about Beethoven’s life. His interest is in setting the context of the work in the historical era and analyzing the music from the perspective of a listener rather than a musicologist. Taken as a whole, the reader is enlightened and enchanted to know more about this brilliant piece of genius.

I was particularly interested in knowing about Beethoven’s circumstances during the years in which he wrote the symphony as well as the circumstances surrounding its first performance. I had told elementary students for years about his deafness and about how he conducted the performance and could not hear the audience’s response. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t making up the details. Sachs makes these circumstances quite vivid; he suggests “To say that he (Beethoven) broke new ground is to understate the matter grossly; Beethoven altered the course of Western music. In the astonishingly individualistic compositions that he produced between the ages of thirty-two and forty-two, he extended the boundaries of tonality, lengthened and transmuted the old forms, and allowed intensely personal expression much freer rein than it had previously known in music.” All that genius reached a climax in this first performance of his master work.

The second part of the book was also fascinating. 1824 was a pivotal year in European history. Napoleon had been defeated but there was still a great deal of idol worship regarding him. Additionally, many great artists, writers and musicians were at work, including Shubert, Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendhal and Heine. Sachs spends a little time on each of these men, helping us understand the way in which artists of all types internalize revolution. He reminds the reader “that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.” Although European governments were returning to autocracy, individuals and their creativity were opening up to new levels of genius.

I got bogged down a bit in the section of the book that deals with the music itself. Part of it was my fault; I didn’t take the time to find a copy of the music to listen to as I was reading about each movement. It would have been a much more valuable experience if I had done this. However, I have included a link to an NPR Performance Today episode which does a similar analysis of the music, if you would like to spend a time listening and analyzing the music.

The last chapter discusses the legacy of the symphony and especially its influence on Richard Wagner.

Altogether, The Ninth is an enlightening read for music lovers, and I was glad that I took the time to delve into it. It was a confirmation to me that sometimes the easy read is not the most satisfying.

Review in The New York Times:

Interview with Harvey Sachs on Indiana Public Media:

NPR Performance Today: Milestones of the Millennium. Another view of that day in 1824: