by Review-a-Day, September 30, 2011 12:00 AM
Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein
by Julie Salamon
Reviewed by Adam Kirsch
The New Republic
The great subject for American Jewish literature has always been the family: its imprisoning intimacy, its guilt-inducing demands, and sometimes even its life-giving warmth. From Arthur Miller's Lomans, cursed by their dreams of success, to Henry Roth's David Schearl, depraved by the sexual tensions in his extended clan, the heroes of American Jewish fiction are generally martyrs to their families. If Judaism had saints, these writers' patron saint would be Jephthah's daughter, who was sacrificed by her father in accordance with a thoughtless vow.
Wendy Wasserstein may not belong in the ranks of the greatest American Jewish writers, but like Neil Simon before her, she helped to popularize the Jewish family romance by making it a subject for heartfelt and accessible comedy. And whether the characters in her plays are explicitly Jewish, as in The Sisters Rosensweig, or atmospherically so, like the heroine of The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein left no doubt that it was her personal experience she was dramatizing.
Indeed, as Julie Salamon makes clear in her rather breathless new biography, Wasserstein was her own most popular creation. Fans reacted to her more like a character in a play or TV show than a mere playwright. "When we walked up the street," remembered her friend William Finn, the songwriter best known for Falsettos, "all these sixty-five-year-old Jewish ladies would come up to Wendy, and she would talk to them. They'd talk about their husbands and their daughters, and when they left, I'd ask her who was that, and she'd say, 'I have no idea.' ... People embraced her as if she were going to explain their lives to them."
But the key to Wasserstein's appeal was not that she had all the answers. Her gift was for tormented ambivalence -- about daughterhood and motherhood, feminism, romance, achievement, and not least, body image. It is rare, and illuminating, to read a literary biography in which so much attention is paid to the subject's weight. It would never happen with a male writer, and that very fact helps to explain why Wasserstein's open discussion of weight and food and dieting struck such a chord.
As Salamon shows, Wasserstein was not above using her candor strategically. In 1988, the actress Caroline Aaron, who had played a major part in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced for the New York run. Salamon reproduces Wasserstein's apologetic letter to Aaron, which begins, "Oy Gavalt!! I've had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces before I sat down to write this note." It was a ritual abasement -- a confession of weakness and a plea for sympathy -- and it worked: "After reading Wendy's words, Caroline Aaron had no doubt that she and Wendy would become even better friends."
That is one of the useful and revealing anecdotes in Wendy and the Lost Boys, showing how Wasserstein could use weakness as a form of power. (There are many others that are much less useful -- Salamon often seems to have put in everything her interviewees told her, and there were clearly a lot of people eager to talk about Wendy Wasserstein.) Even the book's cover makes the point: it features a photograph of a ruefully smiling Wasserstein with her eyes closed and her palm planted on her face, as if she had just made some comical blunder. A born theater person, she had a sure instinct for dramatizing her incompetence. It can become squirm-inducing: "Sometimes she forgot to wear a sanitary pad when she had her period and then walked around with stains on her dress," Salamon writes.
Salamon tells us enough about Wasserstein's childhood to make clear that her performance of helplessness was, at bottom, a defense mechanism. It may not be literally true that, when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, her mother Lola went around bragging that her daughter had gotten the Nobel Prize -- this is one of many too-good-to-check stories that Wasserstein told in several versions (like the one about the time Joseph Heller introduced her as "the funniest girl in New York" and she promptly vomited). But Lola does seem to have been a world-class neurosis-inducer, a mother who set the bar for her children so high that even a Pulitzer seemed like a B-plus. She was also largely to blame for her daughter's lifelong weight issues: in a horrifying detail, Salamon writes that Lola would walk down the street with the teenaged Wendy and tell her, "They are all looking at you and thinking, 'Look at that fat girl.'"
From one point of view, this technique worked, since the Wasserstein children grew up to be very high achievers. Sandra became a pioneering female corporate executive, Bruce became a Wall Street billionaire, and Wendy became Wendy. (A third sister, Georgette, led a more normal life as a mother and innkeeper in New England.) Lola went around the house singing "There's no children like my children," to the tune of "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- one of many Mama Rose-like details in Salamon's portrait -- and she might well have felt justified. When Bruce was born on December 25, it was the set-up for a lifelong joke: "Bruce and Jesus Christ -- the Messiahs, holy Jewish sons -- shared a birthday."
But this tiger-mothering (or is a more passive-aggressive animal called for?) exacted a high price. Its most dramatic casualty, Salamon writes, was Abner Wasserstein, who was born in 1940 and began to suffer from seizures and mental retardation at the age of 5. By the time Wendy was born, in 1950, Abner had been sent to a "home," and she grew up unaware of his existence. She was also unaware that her older sister, Sandra, was actually Lola's child by her first husband, George -- the brother of her own father Morris. It is certainly true that parents of that generation believed in keeping secrets more than we do today, but by any standard Wendy Wasserstein grew up in a family with a problematic relationship to the truth. And that's not counting the more innocent, eccentric lies Lola indulged in -- like cutting the line at Radio City Music Hall by telling people she was visiting from out of town.
It was all perfect training for a playwright, and Salamon shows that Wasserstein never stopped writing about, or mythologizing, her parents and siblings. In 1973, her early play Any Woman Can't (already a characteristic title) dissected her brother Bruce's marriage -- so successfully that, after seeing it, his wife filed for divorce. Twenty-seven years later, Old Money was a thinly veiled commentary on Bruce's plutocratic milieu and his relationship with his son. And the three sisters Rosensweig are clearly versions of Sandra, Georgette, and Wendy
by Review-a-Day, September 29, 2011 12:00 AM
Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat
by Jeff Benedict
Reviewed by Lynne Terry
A healthy 6-year-old girl dies five days after staying home from school with a stomach ache. Her doctors are mystified, her parents devastated. Soon clusters of kids across the West turn up in emergency rooms with similar symptoms: fever, cramping, bloody diarrhea. In the end, hundreds fall ill and three more die.
Sound like script material for a Hollywood movie? Maybe, but it really happened and is recounted by Jeff Benedict in his book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.
Today, after successive outbreaks involving everything from sprouts in Germany to strawberries in Oregon, E. coli is a household term. But nearly two decades ago, only a few scientists knew much about the virulent strain -- E. coli O157:H7 -- that contaminated the Jack in the Box burgers in 1993.
The outbreak spurred tougher food safety regulations, changed the fast-food industry and thrust a Seattle attorney into the limelight as a food safety specialist. It's important stuff but could make for tedious reading, clogged with medical and legal terms. Instead, Benedict spins the tale as a thriller with a rich cast of characters and one key victim: Brianne Kiner, a 9-year-old who comes within a whisper of death but then miraculously survives, becoming a poster child for the ravages of E. coli poisoning.
Kiner's case is championed by Bill Marler, a bright and bold young lawyer in Seattle with a fire in his belly but also a hearth in his heart. The case of a lifetime, Marler turns it into a career. He gives up a secure position in a well-known law firm to join another that is steeped in debt. The historic Jack in the Box settlements, which Marler wrangles, hoist his firm solidly into the black and allow him to create his own firm specializing in food poisoning cases.
Benedict's fascination with the legal process, which provides the spine of the story, isn't surprising. He's a lawyer-turned-writer. But he's also attuned to subtlety in humanity, casting the would-be villains in a sympathetic light. Jack in the Box's president, Robert Nugent, is horrified when he discovers his burgers are poisoning children. His vice president of quality assurance, Ken Dunkley, dropped the ball on food safety but out of oversight, not greed. Washington state had raised the required cooking temperature for hamburger meat to 155 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria, but Jack in the Box was still following the federal standard of 140 degrees, as were most fast-food outlets.
Although much more is known about food safety now than in 1993, the book speaks to our times. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that six more strains of E. coli will be banned from ground beef. That move follows pressure from Marler and represents a step forward in the fight for safe food, which is what Poisoned is all about.
by Review-a-Day, September 28, 2011 12:00 AM
The Echo Chamber
by Luke Williams
Reviewed by Jaya Chatterjee
Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises, became a cornerstone of modernist thought for its ingenious taxonomy of the aural. From the sorting hat of sound, Russolo drew six discrete categories: sibilant noises; rumbles and roars; screeches and creaks; percussives made by touching such resonant objects as wood, stone, or clay; portentous sounds such as hisses; and animal and human noises.
A similar conceit underpins Luke Williams's sprawling debut novel, The Echo Chamber. Fifty-four year old Scotswoman Evie Steppman, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with acute sonic acuity, parses and classes noise as she recounts her family history through narratives and interludes that take her to Normandy, Palermo, Nigeria, and home to Gullane, Scotland, where she composes her tale. Entering Evie's reductive sensorium, where the auditory and the haptic have primacy over other senses, the reader as listener hears a lyrical, melismatic story that draws upon her senses, pulling her into a narrative arc reminiscent of Julia Glass's Three Junes, Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, yet absent the emotional tidiness therein. This, coupled with the vivid sketches of material craft and literary history that anchor the narrative and offer stasis when Evie's hearing begins to fade, shape this multivocal, richly evocative novel. Like its analogue, music, The Echo Chamber is a formalist reverie, a traducing of noise, a mapping of sense onto sound, with kinship with written tradition.
Sound, matter (a pocket watch, a mappa mundi, a radio, and pamphlets chronicling the imperial siege of Benin), and story bind Evie to her eccentric family. In the main, the characters peopling her story include Mr. Rafferty, an aging "murderer," who, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, tries to revive his dying wife by creating mechanical parts for her, including a heart; her father, Rex, an imperialist "monster" who believes he has wrought positive change in the municipal development of Nigeria, but whose regression into an illness with schizoid symptoms leaves him cowering in corners of Evie's attic like Bertha, the madwoman in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; Taiwo and Iffe, her Nigerian caretakers; and Ade, Iffe's son and Evie's lifelong friend.
Like the titular character in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and the narrator in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Evie is a quintessentially postmodern storyteller who struggles repeatedly against the inadequacy and unreliability of language, which, in tandem with her hearing, distorts her experience. Her "memory is a mausoleum of broken sounds": "I feel an almost unbearable sadness when I think of all I have heard, the little I retain and everything that is gone, all those minute, unutterable tones which most faithfully encapsulate my history. I know that one day all the sounds will disappear... they will drift toward me like ghosts and timorously make themselves known... All I will be left with are these words."
Like the eighteenth century French philosophes, who collectively wrote the Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, Evie turns to material craft as a counterpoise to senescence: "whenever the sounds become a meaningless clamor and I cannot concentrate on my past, I turn my attention to the present, to the objects that surround me in the attic, those still, mostly silent companions." Like Michael Ondaatje's characters in The English Patient, both narrative cartography and cartographical narrative become heady lenses for her experience. Evie herself considers the cartographer, El Edrisi, her foil. In literary debt to both Shahrayar and Scheherezade of The Arabian Nights, Edrisi elides mapmaking with femininity, naming the women he seduces after geographical places of resonance, but also learning the intricate art of storytelling to woo the implacable Abila, and finally returning to his birthplace to become a mapmaker. Evie sees a kindred spirit in man and matter alike: "I was like... he who when ignorant of lakes and towns sketched savage beasts and elephants, and in place of contour lines created improbable realms. But where at first she prizes map and story as storehouses of human experience, they begin to refract memory and its loss. Once repositories of travelers' dreams and maps decay, they become equal parts "beauty" and "menace" to Evie.
Landscapes of attrition, loss, and regression proliferate in the novel, echoing the diminution of Evie's hearing. The dream of the white man's burden gone, its concomitant friendships and loyalties, such as Evie's with Iffe, who literally turns her back on Evie at a public rally, the plangent moaning of Babatundi, the mute or "idiot boy" tragically bereft of words, the story of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony in which one by one instruments leave the stage until only two muted violins carry the melody, all are indexical of Evie's growing struggle to discern the notes of her own voice, the filaments of her own story, from the sonic imbrication and narrative polyphony to which she is ever sensitive. From "all the timbres at once, the whole diapason of life," a soundscape directly indebted to the cacophony of Joyce's Ulysses, whose hapless yet acutely percipient Leopold Bloom Evie mirrors almost to the word, the voice recedes into a conversation where Evie and Rafferty echo the "shall we go?/Let's go" badinage of Vladimir and Estrago
by Review-a-Day, September 27, 2011 12:00 AM
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
by David Brooks
Reviewed by Jag Bhalla
The Wilson Quarterly
The Social Animal is a book of grand and diverse ambitions, by one of the nation's most intellectually creative journalists, New York Times columnist David Brooks. His aim is to revolutionize our culture's operative beliefs about human nature, using scientific studies that reveal the "building blocks of human flourishing." His book is part fiction, part nonfiction popularization (neuroscience, psychology, sociology), and part grand synthesis (intellectual history, social policy). The genre-blended result delivers some hybrid vitality, but at the expense of coherence and rigor.
Brooks believes Western culture has a lobotomized view of human nature inherited from the French Enlightenment. Rene Descartes and other philosophers described humans as autonomous individuals endowed with powers of reason that are separate from and pitted against the emotions. The ability to flourish depended on an individual's suppression of his unruly passions. British Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith argued that we are fundamentally social beings, that our reasoning faculty is weak, and that our emotions are strong and can be usefully educated. The French rationalist view fit better with the rise of the mechanistic sciences. But old dualisms must now duel with data: Science supports the British view.
In a fictional narrative, Brooks weaves vignettes from the lives of two characters, "Harold" and "Erica," to illustrate the "hidden sources of love, character, and achievement" of his subtitle. He uses their upbringings, educations, courtship, and so on to model what research shows are key influences on a successful life. For instance, Erica pursues a career in business after a successful entrepreneur with whom she identifies visits her school. Brooks explains that studies show that ambitious people "often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success."
The Social Animal is a marathon surface skim of a sea of scientific studies. Brooks claims this isn't a science book, since it doesn't get its feet wet in the details. But the tradeoff of depth for a flood of factoids may satisfy neither fans of science writing nor lay readers. To give but one example: To illustrate the limits of the conscious mind, Brooks notes that at its peak it "has a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker than [that of] the unconscious." It's a tantalizing observation, but he doesn't indicate how this capacity was measured.
As readers of his Times column might expect, Brooks serves up a smorgasbord of seductive sound bites and contagious coinages (e.g., "Emotional Positioning System"). But some fall flat (as in the New Age-y "the swirls that make up our own minds are shared swirls" and his snarky "sanctimommies"). And he struggles with conceptual laxity, missing opportunities to clarify or revolutionize the terms of the debate. He mainly uses the word "unconscious" to describe information processing that is emotional, instinctive, or not explicitly reasoned, though one of his key goals is to de-Freud our worldview and show that the "unconscious" isn't just a collection of dark, nasty urges.
It's in his efforts to "draw out the social, political, and moral implications" of the science that Brooks reveals his true colors: He's a timid revolutionary. Though he makes some practical recommendations for education -- such as providing "structure for disorganized families" through parenting classes or intensive mentoring -- he chooses not to draw broader political conclusions. How should we deal with the fact that our economies and institutions are built on assumptions about human nature that are now demonstrably wrong?
The human flourishing that Brooks describes is precisely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he quoted Aristotle's phrase "pursuit of happiness." Jefferson thought of the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document grounded in science. Brooks takes us toward a declaration of interdependence, based on scientific, if not yet self-evident, truths. For Jefferson and Aristotle, the individual pursuit of happiness meant a life well lived, which required strong relationships and the fulfillment of community obligations. They knew what science today is rediscovering -- that the flourishing of the individual depends on the flourishing of others.
We aren't as far advanced in this revolution as Brooks would have us believe, but his book, despite its flaws, is a contribution to intellectual history in the making.
Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur living in Washington, D.C. He is the author of I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (2009), and is currently at work on a book about old ideas undergirding our discourse that are now demonstrably wrong.
by Review-a-Day, September 26, 2011 12:00 AM
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human
by Grant Morrison
Reviewed by Greg Baldino
Whether they be gods or angels, the idea of sentient beings beyond us mere mortals but recognizably similar has influenced human thought since the earliest days of tale-telling around the fire. In some tellings, they are of a state of grace from whence humans fell; in others they are a potential, something that might, by labor or virtue, be reached by all. In the 20th century, these tales were given new form with the advent, at the publishing of Superman's first adventure in Action Comics #1, of the superhero. This sub-genre of a sub-genre, born of the highest mythologies and the lowest pulp denominators, rose up from a declasse and maligned artform to become the dominant mythology of the modern world, influencing philosophical discourses as much as box office receipts.
Grant Morrison is no stranger to these creatures. Long before he became one of the most acclaimed and popular comics writers of the last two decades, being trusted with the corporate treasures of Batman, Superman, and the X-Men, he was writing adventures of atypical ubermenschen, from suburban patriarch Animal Man, to outsider art vigilantes the Doom Patrol, to post-human popstar Zenith. With a somewhat holistic view of storytelling, Morrison is as well-versed in the writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as he is in the secret origin of Spider-Man, and a full-length work by him on the superhero genre is a veritable literary occasion.
Following a chronological structure beginning with the Man of Steel's debut in 1938, Morrison looks at superhero comics as both diagnosing and predicting the psychological flow of the modern western world. The shifting nature of Superman as an icon is explored, touching on the socialist revolutionary tendencies of the early stories which were revised to project a strict patriot visage come the outbreak of war. Wonder Woman, like so many super characters, is revealed to be born of her creator's world view as well -- William Moulton Marston, in addition to being the creator of the polygraph test, lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and their girlfriend, a sexuality beyond radical for the time and that greatly influenced many of those early Wonder Woman stories.
As superhero adventures rose in popularity, the light struck from Krypton's last sun split in the prism of commerce, and soon they flew through the newsprint as thick as gnats. In the so-called silver age, when Marvel Comics created both a new breed of character and story, the stories became even more complex, with the emotional stresses of post-war America, youth culture, and the Vietnam War bleeding through from our world onto the page, and then back into the minds of impressionable youth everywhere. The icons shifted, seemingly without moving, ebbing and flowing between power fantasy manifestations to outcroppings of imagination -- Jimmy Olson gets a nod as a precursor to the identity-shifting art mechanics of David Bowie, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. The creators began to be recognized, no longer unknown draftsmen, and for some, such as artist-savant Jack Kirby, this acclaim brought with it enough power to begin to experiment not only with the form, but with the message.
It's in the midst of the silver age that Morrison's own storyline intrudes into the book. Born in Scotland to a World War II veteran turned anti-nuclear pacifist and a bohemian renaissance woman, he grew up against the backdrop of the second age of heroes, the rise and fall of flower power, and the height of cold war paranoia. "Before the bomb was a bomb, it was an idea," he writes in the introduction, but Superman was a better one.
Using his own life as an example, Morrison tries to drive home the concept of superheroes as altruistic ideas, archetypes of the transformation of tragedy into triumph. In Glasgow a depressed, lonely teenager has everything turned around by the magic (ritual and metaphorical) of strange clothes, fake names, and abilities far beyond those of mortal men; through the superhero, with its special name and costume, there is the concept of reinvention and the celebration of self. Beyond just wearing his heart on his sleeve, Superman bears his initial on the front of his shirt as a full realization of everything individual identity offers, proffering shades of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche covered with day-glo glitter as a counter to nihilistic anti-life. It's the zenith of Morrison's exploration of what superheroes mean, and why this 20th-century genre took off as it did.
Unfortunately, it's also the point where the book unravels a bit. The autobiographical inclusions certainly add several new layers to the book. If you treat Supergods as one of Morrison's famously multi-layered pieces of imaginative writing, such as his acclaimed series The Invisibles, it's another facet to reflect the whole. But as a critical essay on the meaning and relevance of the superhero, the structure starts to go off the rails when Morrison diverts into autobiography.
As Supergods moves on to explore the last thirty years of the genre, the subject matter starts to resemble a situationist feedback loop. All of the unconscious emergences that shaped and defined the heroes of the golden and silver ages are now fully recognized and calculated by their modern creators. The histories and critiques are all well known, and the tropes have become so well-rehearsed and self-referential that the content becomes trapped in the context rather than enriched by it. Alan Moore's Watchmen may be the best example of this, as the book loses entire layers of relevance for the reader unfamiliar with the mystery men it deconstructs. Modern superhero comics, in a variety of ways, are shown to make more presumptions about their audience, obfuscating with elaborate liturgies or quantum continuities when they aren't stripping everything back to the most basic of archetypes. It's a completely alternate universe from the almost automatic writing of the seminal storytellers, one that probably merits a separate analysis altogether.
All of which is not to say that Supergods isn't interesting, well-written, and exceptionally dynamic. Morrison is the ideal Virgil to have at your side in the divine comedy of superhero comics, an epic journey still underway thanks to creators like him.
by Review-a-Day, September 25, 2011 12:00 AM
by Craig Thompson
Reviewed by Glen Weldon
Craig Thompson's 2003 graphic novel Blankets is a book that people like me hand to people like you when we want you to understand that comics are much more than superheroes -- that they are a medium, a singular means of storytelling with its own rich language, idioms and rules. In Thompson's 600-page semi-autobiographical tome, a young man gripped in the often-painful process of discovering his adult self attempts to forge a spiritual and artistic identity even as he falls helplessly in love with a girl who represents everything his life has been missing. Thompson deftly married spare text to often lyrical imagery to create in the reader the same exhilarating tension of first love that seizes his hero.
Now Thompson brings that mastery of the alchemical mixture of word and picture only possible on the comics page to the much-anticipated Habibi, set somewhere in a modern yet resolutely mythical Middle East. The novel's ambitions are larger than those of Blankets, and its subjects many: In just the opening chapters, Thompson gamely tackles nothing less than the roots of religion, the nature of masculinity and femininity, the lasting toll of physical and sexual trauma, our fragile relationship with the environment and, for good measure, why we tell stories to one another.
In another's hands, such weighty abstractions could easily result in a leaden, highly pedantic "novel of ideas," but Habibi never feels top-heavy because it remains, at its center, a love story. Every grand theme that recurs over the course of its nearly 700 pages, every lofty idea Thompson explores, grows out of the love -- the uncomplicated, palpable, eminently relatable yearning -- that his two main characters feel for each other.
As the novel begins, a beautiful young woman and a small boy eke out a meager existence in the shelter provided by a ship stranded in the middle of the desert. Thompson moves fluidly back and forth in time and slowly parcels out their back stories -- the novel will be almost half over before we find out how they arrived at that boat or what causes them to get separated from one another for much of the story -- but we feel the strength of their connection immediately, because he shows it to us. Thompson draws faces and figures in a style reminiscent of the great Will Eisner, combining precise draftsmanship with an eye for the characterizing, cartoonish detail. It's a degree of skill that ensures his characters interact with subtlety and elegance.
The boy and the woman do get separated, and over the course of the novel, which takes them through slums, harems, prisons, poisoned rivers and empty high-rises, the nature of their love for one another will change in unexpected ways. At their loneliest, they will both seek comfort in stories from the Quran, which the author brings to life in passages of intricate design and arresting beauty. In these sections, Thompson employs Arabic calligraphy, magic squares and other elements of Islamic art and architecture to weave patterns and shapes on the page that seem to hold his characters suspended in space. It's as if these stories of prophets and miracles are physically supporting the woman and the boy, just as they provide emotional support. These pages offer the clearest demonstrations of Thompson's ability to blend scholarship, sensitivity and skill in service of the timeless human story he wants to tell.
Habibi is a complex and multifaceted work of fiction that lingers in the memory. Once you finish it, you will be left with the distinct feeling that it hasn't finished with you, that it is a book you could read again in a year or a decade and have it speak to you in a new voice each time, offering up new connections you were not previously able to see.
Of all the books I've read this year, the mysterious, marvelous Habibi is the one I most look forward to meeting again.
by Review-a-Day, September 24, 2011 12:00 AM
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer
Reviewed by Doug Brown
On July 24, 1984, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers brutally murdered their sister-in-law and her baby girl, believing they were fulfilling a revelation that one of the brothers had received from God. Today they reside in federal prisons. The older brother, Ron (who had the revelation), is on death row and following every avenue for appeal. The younger brother, Dan, is serving a life sentence and seems okay with it (Krakauer says he refers to prison as a "monastery"). Krakauer spoke to Dan for the book, but not Ron. Under the Banner of Heaven tells in parallel the story of the Lafferty brothers and their descent into fundamentalism alongside the history of the Mormon Church.
The modern Mormon Church is quick to distance itself from fundamentalists; most are excommunicated from the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) community. The church downplays the history of plural marriage (polygamy) in Mormonism, to the point of maintaining that Brigham Young was monogamous (history says otherwise). Polygamy is a central point of contention with fundamentalists -- they feel the church went astray when it cooperated with U.S. law and renounced the practice in the late 1800s. A practice that is still a part of the church, though, is revelation. Mormons are encouraged to listen for messages from God, and much of the basis of Mormon dogma is a sequence of revelations that Joseph Smith and later church leaders have had. One doctrine of Mormonism that has terrible consequences is "blood atonement"; if acts are committed against Mormons, Brigham Young said this could sometimes only be rectified if the "sinners have their blood spilt upon the ground." Fundamentalists are naturally drawn to blood atonement, and this element of Mormonism became a focus for the Lafferty brothers.
A fundamental point of Ron's trial was whether he was insane. The defense argued he was; the prosecution argued no. As Krakauer details, if Ron Lafferty is insane, it could be argued that so are most religious people. He believed he was receiving revelations from God, but revelation is a tenet of Mormonism. Despite carrying out horrible crimes, he felt he was doing the right thing, and was thus divorced from reality. But so is everyone who goes to war with a cross or a star or a crescent around their neck. Ron did what he did because of his faith. Sure, the motive seems self-serving -- Brenda Lafferty (the victim) had convinced Ron's abused wife to leave him, so naturally Ron said that God wanted her "removed." But there was much discussion between the brothers and their circle about whether the "removal revelation" was legitimately from God; the final decision, for Ron and Dan anyway, was yes. This discussion is a particularly sore point for Brenda's family -- several people knew about the revelation months before it was carried out, and no one warned her. Krakauer maintains one of these people was Allen Lafferty, Brenda's husband. Ron had shown him the revelation and asked what he thought of it. Allen spoke against it, but never felt inclined to say, "Hey, honey, I had the creepiest talk with my brothers..."
Even before Under the Banner of Heaven was on the shelves, the LDS church preemptively attacked it. In a five-page screed that is reprinted in an appendix for the paperback, Krakauer is taken to task for focusing on the negative aspects of the church. It emphasizes that the Lafferty brothers weren't members of the LDS church, having been excommunicated. Krakauer responds to each of the charges. In a few cases, he acknowledges having gotten facts wrong in the initial release (which were subsequently corrected for the paperback edition). But, for the most part, he defends the points made in the book.
Events have happened in the history of Mormonism that the church would rather sweep under the rug, like the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (detailed in the book). And while the Laffertys had been excommunicated from the LDS church, their beliefs were rooted in the church. They believed they were being better Mormons than the LDS church leaders. To me, that was an important take-away lesson of the book -- religious fundamentalists don't necessarily believe something completely different from the mainstream; they just interpret the same texts more inflexibly and believe in their interpretation more deeply. In the hands of fundamentalists, religious belief is by definition intolerant, and often used for brutal ends. Under the Banner of Heaven is a scary book about the dark fringe of extremist religion and believers who are willing to lethally impose their dogma.
by Review-a-Day, September 23, 2011 12:00 AM
Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America
by David S. Reynolds
Reviewed by Drew Gilpin Faust
The New Republic
As the obsolescence and even the demise of the book are widely foretold, it is all the more important -- and comforting -- to recognize how a book can change the world. It is hard to think of many that have done so more emphatically than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln is famously said to have greeted its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1862 by inquiring, "So this is the little lady who started this great war?" And whether he actually ever made the remark or not, the very fact of her visit to the White House and the emergence of the legend of his respectful, if somewhat patronizing, salutation are sufficient evidence of the remarkable influence that Stowe's words claimed in mid-nineteenth-century America.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was at once a novel and an "event," as Theodore Parker proclaimed soon after it appeared. Today its publication is appropriately included -- along with such occurrences as the Dred Scott decision and John Brown's raid -- on timelines of incidents that propelled the nation towards civil war. In the mounting sectional conflict, words assumed the power of deeds, acts of political as well as social transformation. Originating as a serial, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in book form in the spring of 1852. By mid-October, 120,000 copies had been sold; by the following spring, 310,000. In England it was even more successful, with sales of a million within a year. Michael Winship has called it "the world's first true blockbuster." It may also have been the first bestseller to produce spin-offs-which came to be known as "Tomitudes": engravings, games, puzzles, songs and sheet music, dramatizations-in Europe as well as the United States. The book was a phenomenon, in its popularity and its influence.
Yet by the early twentieth century it was out of print and would remain so for decades. "Uncle Tom" became an epithet, representing not the admirable saintliness and sacrifice with which Stowe had sought to imbue her protagonist, but -- in the eyes of African Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin -- an embarrassing embodiment of black obsequiousness and self-loathing. In the white segregated South, scorn for Stowe's book claimed different origins: it was seen as part of a long tradition of Northern meddling in Southern racial arrangements. In South Carolina in 1900, a teacher might well make his students raise their right hands and swear never to read Uncle Tom's Cabin -- an unwitting nod to the book's power as well as an affirmation of the white South's racial solidarity. Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly never taught as literature in the North or the South, because it was seen by critics and scholars as sentimental and overwrought -- less art than propaganda. Hawthorne dismissed Stowe as one of his era's "scribbling women."
But Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin never did disappear entirely. Perhaps the first modern appreciation of her and her masterwork came from Edmund Wilson, not the easiest or the most gentle of critics. His great book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, which appeared in 1962 at the very outset of the conflict's centennial, opens with a lengthy chapter on Stowe. Wilson emerges from his consideration a grudging admirer, acknowledging the prejudices he brought to the text, but demonstrating a thorough conversion. "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom," he confessed, was "a startling experience." He admitted that "it is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect." Wilson hailed the "vitality" of its characters, the book's "eruptive force," the clear evidence of the author's "critical mind." Comparing her favorably with Dickens and Gogol, he concluded she was "no contemptible novelist." He became a fan in spite of himself.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s drew more attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin as a vehicle of scorn than to either the literary power or the abolitionist sympathies of the novel. It was the emergence of Second Wave feminism and the resultant growth of interest in women's history that ultimately led to a systematic rehabilitation of the book as an essential example of the moral authority and reach of nineteenth-century American women. The cult of domesticity, the centrality of evangelical religion, the influence of social reform, and the impact of the female pen shaped mid-century society and culture in ways that reached well beyond the home. The era's "scribbling women" -- with Stowe the most successful among them -- were both the cause and the result of this transformation.
The past quarter century has witnessed sustained interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin and its author. The book's original popularity derived in no small part from its invocation of so many of the critical concerns of nineteenth-century American culture. As a result it can serve as an almost unsurpassed point of entry into the assumptions of that historical moment. It is a marvelous book to teach -- as I have done with undergraduates, graduate students, and summer seminars of high school teachers. It is a document that captures the sensibilities of people both like and unlike ourselves, and it describes a past world with voices and characters that speak to us across the barriers of space and time -- Tom, Topsy, Eva, Cassy, Mrs. Bird, St. Clare, Ophelia -- even Simon Legree. That Stowe achieved such influence in a period when American feminism was making its first appearances, and that she did so with a text intended to advance the anti-slavery cause, further contributes to its present day relevance, for these two nineteenth-century social movements have had modern manifestations that have shaped our age as fundamentally as they did hers.
Through the work of Jane Tompkins, Mary Kelley, and others, Uncle Tom's Cabin has played a key role in reorienting the study of the American Renaissance to include women alongside its iconic men -- Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville. In 1995, Joan Hedrick won a Pulitzer Prize for the first full-scale biography of Stowe in half a century. And Uncle Tom entered promptly into the digital era as well. In 1852, the book had strained the technological capacities of its time, requiring, according to its publisher, that three paper mills and more than a hundred book binders remain constantly at work to meet
by Review-a-Day, September 22, 2011 12:00 AM
Driving Home: An American Journey
by Jonathan Raban
Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
Jonathan Raban's new collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Journey, could easily have been titled "The Jonathan Raban Reader," as the brisk, smartly crafted pieces are just that representative of Raban's long and illustrative writing life. He is the author of 12 other books, fiction and nonfiction, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award among other prizes. The 44 (yes, 44) selections in this book, written over a near two-decade stretch, are largely culled from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, with others published in such revered pages as the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, Esquire, Outside and Playboy. By combining them in one volume, Raban offers a lively stew of topics, themes that most interest the British citizen turned Seattleite, subjects that get him most excited and riled.
Before we enter the territory of excited and riled, though, Raban first introduces himself -- in one of the most enchanting essays in the book and its first -- as a devoted reader from a young age. A reader who becomes a writer, hugely influenced as a young man by author William Empson who, in Raban's words, taught him to "slow down, to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think."
We are invited to do the same with Driving Home: to view aspects of American life past, present and future -- with a particular focus on the West -- from this outsider's vantage. To listen, savor, question, ponder, think. Readers have long been drawn to Raban for the elegance of his language and eloquence of his thought -- as well as a wry sense of humor on par with Susan Orlean's; precise research a la John McPhee -- and can expect to find the same in these essays.
"Nowhere do waves break with more reliable splendor than on the melancholy coast of Oregon, where the great Pacific wave trains come to a spectacular end on beaches of pulverized green sand," he writes in "The Waves." "Everything about the place is somber -- the crumbling basalt cliffs, the dripping conifers, the slanting gray cathedral light."
Along with such rich imagery, Raban dishes up an entertaining cast of characters -- poet Philip Larkin, a Seattle woman who visited heaven and then returned to Earth, delightful Montana homesteader Percy Wollaston, less-than-delightful Sarah Palin, to name a few -- though he's at his best when he's on the sea with the likes of George Vancouver, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Francis Chichester (knighted in the 1960s for his solo circumnavigation of the world). He's also at his best when he's roaming the edges of the Columbia River, trying to make real sense out of "the quintessential American experience to arrive in a wild and inhospitable place, bend raw nature to one's own advantage, and make it home."
Some of these pieces, particularly the title essay, Driving Home, feel a bit stale -- they certainly captured a strong sense of their time at the time, but that time (the tech boom in Seattle, the vibrant air of hope around Obama) has passed. And too often the reader is confronted with yet another redundant statement about the West, the qualities that make Seattle distinct, for instance, or about Vancouver's shift from "dizzy elation to sullen melancholy," the deeper he sailed into narrow Pacific inlets.
Still, Raban's voice rings fresh and clear through great majority of this work, and the 500-page book is well worth picking up if only to read the gems, among them the astonishing "Indian Country," the most timeless and revealing essay here, and the only one of the bunch, apparently, that comes to us new, without having been previously published.
by Review-a-Day, September 21, 2011 12:00 AM
Life Itself: A Memoir
by Roger Ebert
Reviewed by Gerald Bartell
Washington Post Book World
In the 1950s, long before he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, Roger Ebert spent many a Saturday afternoon sipping root beer and munching jawbreakers, Necco Wafers and licorice at the Princess Theater in his home town of Urbana, Ill. Five cartoons, a newsreel, a Batman, Superman or Rocketman serial and then a double bill -- a Lash LaRue western followed by a Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello comedy -- flashed before him.
Ebert's memoir, Life Itself, resembles one of those movie marathons. Tales from childhood, interviews with film stars and directors, funny and touching stories about colleagues, and evocative essays about trips unspool before the reader in a series of loosely organized, often beautifully written essays crafted by a witty, clear-eyed yet romantic raconteur.
Ebert begins with his childhood, a time when he did not, as one might think, escape an unhappy home at the movies. His parents sometimes quarreled over money, but mostly Roger's account of the family's life in Urbana suggests the Midwestern comfort of a Booth Tarkington short story.
On summer nights, the Eberts sipped homemade lemonade on the front porch of a two-bedroom white stucco house with green awnings. They talked to neighbors and watched for fireflies as "the sounds of radios, voices, distant laughter would float on the air." Young Roger founded the Roger Ebert Stamp Company, published a neighborhood newspaper and read voraciously, developing a passion for the novels of Thomas Wolfe.
Also emerging was a passion for journalism. At 16, Ebert covered high school sports for the Urbana News-Gazette, and then, as a student at the University of Illinois, became the decidedly liberal editor of the Daily Illini. After graduation he landed a job at the Chicago Sun-Times, where, in 1967, the features editor named Ebert the paper's film critic.
With no formal film education, Ebert headed to the movies, heeding Pauline Kael's approach to film: "I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me."
Over time, Ebert developed guidelines for his work. He likes movies about "Good People," an elastic definition that includes Hannibal Lecter ("the victim of his unspeakable depravities...he tries to do the right thing.") And Ebert hesitates to hurt people: "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat."
Ebert's take on film critic Gene Siskel, his co-host for the TV series "At the Movies," should quell persistent rumors that the men disliked each other. Yes, they feuded over films so intensely that the studio where they taped often had to be cleared. But underneath the tensions, Ebert says, he cared for Siskel like a brother. Of Disney and CBS execs who dropped plans for a sitcom starring the men as rival critics, Ebert says, "Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love."
Ebert's work as a film critic sent him traveling, and his wonderfully personal essays on places around the world where he seeks solitude are highlights of the book, rich in reflections, imagery and sensory detail. Travelers who return year after year to the same destination will savor Ebert's reflections on these rituals:
I have many places where I sit and think, 'I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.' Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath.... These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.
In 2006 Ebert received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeries that followed left him unable to eat, drink or speak and looking "like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum." Is he unhappy? Not really, partly because he began pouring his "regrets, desires and memories" into a blog, which led to his doing this book. Because of the writing, Ebert says, he was lucky: "I wrote, therefore I lived."
Ebert's luck is also our luck. We can nibble Twizzlers, Twinkies and Milk Duds and enjoy Ebert's marathon of memories. Bartell is an arts and travel writer based in Manhattan.