Book Reviews-Archives


MH June 30, 2013

MH Feb. 23, 2013

Fire in the Ashes: 25 Years
Among the Poorest Children
by Jonathan Kozol
Crown Pub., 2012

In addition to his implied sociology and implied public policy, Jonathan Kozol is a good writer and an excellent story-teller.

From the point of view of a self-effacing narrator (Kozol himself) we sample the lives of several children who have been mired in heavy, filthy, life-suffocating NYC environments. We get a glimpse of where they have landed in 2012. The stories are personal, marked with telling detail and warmth without sentimentality.

MH Feb 24, 2013

Future: Six Drivers of
Global Change.
by Al Gore
Random House, 2013

How did Al Gore--this learned, wonky and wise polymath--ever become a mocked man? (Invention of the Internet and all that crap.)

In Future, he looks at the planet from the Stone Age through nanotechnology and leaps into the distant future, taking Earth, Inc. and all humankind into bulging arms.

The sheer volume of information and ideas is thrilling, even as it may drive a reader to the point of exhaustion.

[More Gore to come--maybe]

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March 5..., 2013
For a book called "Future," it is mainly chock full of past and present.

There are major/minor gems such as his noting that, while we humans create our tools, the tools are also changing us.

For example, there is research strongly suggesting that when we fully adapt to GPS, we lose our natural sense of direction!

He reminds us that the technological revolutions of the past (eg, Bronze Age, printing press, etc.) all had swathes of time separating them, and that , with each of the new revolutions, the time in between is radically shrinking. The acceleration of each tech revolutiion requires extraordinary human adaptation.

The Novel: a Biography
by Michael Schmidt.
Harvard U. Press, 2014

MH August 19, 2014

The owner of the Chatham (N.Y.) Bookstore loved the cover of The Novel: a Biography, and she had good reason. On a velvety earth-green background three headless readers (the heads having disappeared into books) hold and interact with five books. Their heads may be in the books but their hands touch real books--and connect with more hands and more books. Of course! Reading leads to reading.

I brought my Mack truck to cart the book's 1172 pages home, and it now lives near my breakfast spot for random AM excitements.

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It collects what novelists (and sometimes Michael) have said about other novelists.

It is not a reference book. It's a collection of tantalizing appetizers, reminders of novels you can't die without having read and notes about astonishing things you've missed in the ones you have.

CHUCK TODD; CHRIS MATTHEWS Nuthin'-But-The-Truth Journalism

MH December 13, 2013

Recently, on his TV show, Chris Matthews allowed a guest to get away with stating at least twice, "The American people oppose Obamacare." Matthews, usually a compulsive interrupter, never even wrinkled his brow--let alone challenged this truth-mangle.

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Also recently, Chuck Todd (MSNBC commentator) denied that it is media's job to correct misinformation. And Fox News seems so riddled with misstatements that it has simply morphed into FOX-True news, "fair & balanced" with untrue news.

Bona fide journalists must at least challenge obvious falsehoods. To expose reality is their professional duty, otherwise the public is continually misled, bamboozled, and encouraged to vote against its own best interests. (Perhaps interviewers could at least intervene with "...and your evidence for that assertion is...?")
[Use arrows to cont.]

Demonstrably false assertions--perversions of well-established fact-- must be challenged everywhere that professional journalists live.

To preserve some semblance of their own credibility, I would further urge that demonstrably false assertions in political ads be refused by television, radio, and web journals.

We are all entitled to our opinins, well-reasoned or dumb; but professional journalism is a calling and a profession. As such, it needs to adhere to higher standards.

  "The Disappeared"
  By Salman Rushdie
  The New Yorker (magazine)
  7/17/12, pp.50...

  MH Sept.13, 2012
"The Disappeared" is the beginning of Salman Rushdie's hiding-from-Islamic- assassination story. It is apparently part of his new book: Joseph Anton, a Memoir, published by Random House. ("Joseph Anton" was his alias during the disappearance.)

If ever you are tempted to "respect' the blood-thirsty religions, Rushdie's experience is likely to restore you to reality.

American Prospect Coddles Islam

    MH August 2011

  AMERICAN PROSPECT (Aug. 2011 issue)

To the Editors of AP:

In our house we vote Democratic. I am a long-time admirer of your founder, Robert Reich, and we subscribe to The American Prospect, The Nation, The NY Times, (along with a number of other publications such as The NY Review of Books, local papers, Barrons, The Economist, and specialized music journals).

The right-wingers around here probably think of us as radical lefties.

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But I gotta tell you, AP Editors: That poor-victim-religious-little-me article, “Muslim and American” is enough to make an honest liberal puke.

I absolutely do not sanction violence against religious people or their tax-free properties. (The sneaky anonymous kind of violence is especially disgusting.) However, with that little valentine to herself, Beemish Ahmed conveniently sidesteps the real issues.
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Imagine. A whole Islam article published in American Prospect with no mention of the chattel-status of women in Islamic cultures—no objection to the symbolism of that scarf, which proclaims to the world that, as a female, she is the property of male relatives—no opposition to the practices of wife-beating, and daughter-stoning, and infanticide, so much a part of Islam around the world. How could you, Editors?

A truly liberal journal would be busy blasting any culture/religion that denigrates, suppresses, sexually abuses, and sometimes murders its females simply for the crime of femaleness. That would include our own home-grown, fundamentalist Protestant and fundamentalist Jewish and polygamist sects. The journal would, further, be constantly exposing the savagery, the superstition, and anti-intellectualism connected to these culture-religions.

“We will become a part of this country without losing our identities,” Ahmed proclaims near the end of her article. Hear the news, missy: until you shed a lot of male-supremacy nonsense, and Koran-induced ignorance, you will always be a drag on the nation.

And for civilization's sake, American Prospect! Don't be afraid to proclaim that certain cultures/religions are backward--even savage.

The whole idea of a liberal journal embracing a rigid, superstitious, misogynist religion is an unbearable cognitive dissonance.

  Chatham, NY
  Sept. 9, 2011

The Help 
by Kathryn Stockett.
Putnam's Sons, 2009
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain

I'm reading two books that have a lot in common, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Both Twain and Stockett have been indignantly criticized for using "black dialect" for the black characters. Both books have been criticized on other grounds as well, of course.

Mark Twain was blocked in the writing of HF for seven years. He returned to the Mississippi River to try to get beyond his block, and it worked, but ironically, Twain took his characters away from the river, though still in the South, rather than North up the river to freedom. Some readers regret Twain's decision, but others have pointed out that Huck and Jim have experiences on land that are an uncanny parallel to Reconstruction.

My own childhood was similar to Kathryn Stockett's, though I grew up in Tulsa and not in the deep South. My mother was in the Junior League, and I was raised by a loving and marvelous Black maid, Guyeather Davis. I have always felt that she "saved my life" because she understood me and wanted me to stretch myself to the limits of my abilities. She herself went to college as soon as Blacks were

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 allowed to attend formerly all-white colleges and universities. She graduated from Tulsa University Magna Cum Laude, and then earned her Master's degree in education, and ran Head Start in Tulsa.

I think Kathryn Stockett gets it exactly right, and her book is a great gift to the world. The skilled, devoted, loving and suffering "help" who worked for white families were profoundly compassionate in their understanding of the world. They saw it all, understood it all, and waited for the day when the world would change -- some with rage in their hearts, but mostly with an awesome mixture of wisdom, love and tolerance.

Both books reflect the legacy of slavery -- the heritage of cruelty and wrong that is the central contradiction of our democracy.

Elizabeth Diggs

   Jesse de Groodt Jan. 4, 2012

Re: Economics. Check out the website. Read the book

  The Lost Science of Money 
  by Stephen Zarlenga
  American Monetary Institute, 2001

  MH Jan. 5, 2012
I checked the website. Its essence appears to be the careful defining of "money," the history of same, and an interesting proposition suggesting that the money-issuing functions of the Federal Reserve should be removed from private hands and place within the U.S. Government. 

The "private hands" part of that statement will raise some notes of exception; but before you start screaming and jumping
up and down, go there. Ponder this

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  Thus the real question in practice was
  whether it would be private banks or
  the government that would create
  paper money. Will the immense power
  and profit of issuing currency go to the
  benefit of the whole nation or to the
  private bankers?

Don't skip "Frequently Asked Questions," one of which, of course, is
  Why should we give the
  government even more power?
Their answer:
  Because our money system  
  belongs to society as a whole. It is
  too important to trust to
  unrepresentative and
  unaccountable private hands,
  preoccupied with private gain, with
  little regard for the detrimental
  consequences for our country, and
  cutside our system of checks and
  balances. Just look what
  they have done!
In other words, whom do you fear most, profit-grabbers or goverment incompetents? (Sounds like the health-care debate.)

This voter generally favors government. At least we can vote crooks and incompetents out, when necessary. If we are paying attention.

Without heavy study, we civilians are left with the question about how to fill in the dots connecting the power of issuing currency with economic crises and gaping income inequalities. (Squawk-back welcome.)
Note that legislation embracing some of these ideas has been introduced by Dennis Kucinich (HR 2990, National Emergency Employment Defense [NEED] Act of 2011). It has been sent to committee. (There to expire?)



MH November 27, 2012

A Study of Extremes
in Six Suites: Poems
Irene Mitchell
Cherry Grove Press, 2012

Connections, surprising, pregnant connections, flood in when you read Mitchell. Quite a few of them may be your own, as hers go soaring by.

She is concrete and unsentimental. (I like her woman's fisheye that tolerates nothing false or silly, a habit that does nothing to diminish the eager intake and lively output.)

She rubs ordinary and extraordinary pieces of the world against one another to unleash a spark.

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In a slurry of crystal and snow
she aces the downhill run
slick as an arctic seal or harp's glissando.

There are fowl and fauna, growing things, moving and human things.

And so Mitchell, earth-made woman and "delicate aesthete," goes "to arms before the snow flies! [to] Unleash some art."


(A sample chosen by Mitchell)

Choosing the Eclair

A pastry glazed
eludes its truth
but is a hymn to presentation.

Have you ever
the sweet center
as a blue pool when the rest of the sky is white?

The cloying bite
ignites a psalm that pierces heaven.

Have you ever
the sweet center

That is the baptism of desire.


"Flood the Zone"
NY Times (2/7/12)

  MH February 7, 2012

When the ideological right waxes sentimental about diversity, you had better clutch your wallet and brush up your skepticism.

In the Tuesday (2/7/12) NY Times, David Brooks pumps for "diversity" as a solution for poverty--which, for him, means lots of governmentally supported religions.

Religion used to be a favorite pacifier that the ruling classes delivered to the poor, but I thought we had given up that condescending wickedness.

Oh yes. Every now and then Brooks writes something really insightful and interesting. When that happens, his subject matter rarely wanders past 1900. When addressing current social problems his brain departs, his tongue dribbles, and his writing-chops shrink to cinders.

Dear Times editors: Can't you keep this person in the centuries to which he belongs?

JO HAGAN June 2011
Little Neck, NY &

  Ask Jo Hagan what she is
  reading and you are likely to
  get an earful. It’s never just
  one book. Her current list:

I just finished The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. (Harper Collins, 2008) and The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown, 2010). I really like this one. It’s about an artist who tries to destroy a painting in the Washington Art Gallery. The story goes back and forth between the psychiatrist who is treating him and the other people in his life.

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I’m reading Exuberance: the Passion for Life, by Kay Jamison (a psychologist at Johns Hopkins). She talks about scientists, artists, and musicians and the joy they get from their plying their arts. I love it. (She also wrote Touched with Fire, which deals with artists and poets and the relationship between their creativity and manic-depressive illness.)

For a change of pace, I am wending slowly through A Traitor to His Class: the Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, 2008).



   MH   [Nov. 2011]

In a book review, I came across this W.S. poem about tragedy.

  It leaps through us, through
  all our heavens leaps,
  Extinguishing our planets,
  one by one,
  Leaving, of where we were
  and looked, of where

  We knew each other and of
  each of each other thought,
  A shivering residue, chilled
  and foregone.


  MH July 2011

The Age of American Unreason.
By Susan Jacoby
First Vintage Books, 2009

Jacoby traces our current distrust of science and general anti-intellectualism to lagging education and religious fundamentalism, especially that which emanates from the South.

The book is a fascinating history of American belief and opinion as it has affected how we govern ourselves--as it has left us drifting behind other advanced nations.

  A big part of the problem is that
  we, as a people, have become
  too lazy to learn what we need to
  know to make sound public
  Jacoby, p.309

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Among the many little historical items that she reminds us of is the fact that our Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia "has said bluntly that Catholic officeholders should resign if asked to uphold any public policies that contradict church doctrine...."

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"It is certainly not anti-Catholic to raise the question of whether anyone who owes his highest allegiance not to American law but to Canon law belongs on the Supreme Court."

She makes a powerful case for knowing--the kind of knowing based on fact and logic rather than superstition, ignorance, and fantasy. (To "superstition, etc.", I would add the mind-numbing repetitions of political untruths that bombard us daily.)

  MH JUly 2011

  MH August 2011

Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon
By Gretchen Morgenson & Joshua Rosner
Henry Holt & Co., 2011

No GOP president-wannabee should be allowed on a ballot or a debate platform until s/he has passed a quiz on this book.

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House ownership for the underclass! It sounds so humanitarian. So moral , So right (meaning, of course, left.).

House owneship for the underclass! A mortage scheme that would not only bring thousands of poor people into home ownership, but generate Wall Street and CEO profits as well.

Profits! More profits for the profit-soaked. And a level of CEO wealth that is almost unimaginable.

  During his years at Fannie Mae, making a cool
  million, he [James Johnson, Fannie Mae CEO]
  made sure to arrange for an inflation-adjusted
  consulting contract with the company that began at
  $390,000a year. His pension--around $900,000 a
  year--was secure and so were company- paid
  perquisites such as a car and driver for him and
  his wife, office space at the prestigious Watergate
  comple, and the services of two emloyees.

The only difficulty was (according to Morgenson and Rosner) that those profits were the result of much political manipulation and a bit of accounding fraud.

  June 10, 2012

Blue Nights
Joan Didion
Knopf, 2011

  The Buddha in the Attic
  Julie Otsuka
  Knopf, 2011

Hillary Jordan
Algonquin, 2009

  The Widow's War
  by Sally Gunning
  Harper, 2007

  MH August 2011

Self Reliance
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

...followed by a lovely S.R. essay by  Ann Woodlief


Writing Musical Theater
By Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

Cohen is a friend whose book is making me revisit my musical, QUEEN BEE.

More on these later. Maybe.

    MH August 2011

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace
Little Brown 1996

Page 196. I would like to stop reading this book--just turn my back on its interminable lists, its bloated divagations, its ugly /true stuff. I don't have to let Wallace rub my nose in all this shit. Close the book!

Yes but...

At the sentence level this novel is knock-your-socks-(and various other items of your wardrobe)-off thrilling! Some of the sentences roll on for five or six inches. Some of them are crafted 19th-century lit style. Some of them are in kooky dialects. Some of them send you to the dictionary.

And you're not even annoyed because they are so funny, so recognition-making, and so--well, thrilling.

  [More later. I'm just partway
  into the 1079 pages, and I plan
  to stroll.]

The novel is set in the near future.
It's a future consumed by consumerism, addiction, competitivism, entertainmentism, corporatism, gadgetism, pharmaceuticalism, informationism. Human characters have difficulty making their way among the isms. (It may make you long for Tolstoy or Henry James, but there are other rewards.)

The range and specificity of Wallace’s vocabulary speaks--yelps. It may be meant to intimidate—or simply meant to remind us of the distance between us and cavemen, as well as between ordinary reader-brains and the teeming, drug-soaked brain of the author. Among his other skills, Hal, the main character has memorized the O.E.D. However, he inhabits the insufficiency of I.Q. even as as the author dazzlingly employs it. He (the author) also misspells. (Oh good. We have something in common.) On purpose? I don't know.

Some of the book indulges in goo and gore, sinking to the level of forensic television shows that just can’t display enough mucus-laden, bloody, yukky intestines and mangled flesh in the hope of trashing one more standard of cultivated nicety. It’s the author as infant, smearing his crib with feces.

The device of providing numbered notes in the back of the novel both pricks academia and works well, a delightful contradiction. Don’t skip them.
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There are lists. Lots of lists. Lists of electronic gadgets (real and imaginary), places passed in a building, names of drugs (real and concocted, I suspect), and so many alphabeted organizations that they dissolve into a pot of silliness. The very excessiveness of the list-device forces one to ask if these things have already crowded out everything else in contemporary life; if this is all there is; if this is insanity; if not these things, then what?

The characters are mostly so shallow and plastic that one hopes never to meet any of them—and wonder if one is meeting no other kind.

  [More later, maybe]

So I was wrong. I begin to feel for Mario, Hal, and Avril. I got past the

  PR circulars of the Union of
  the Hideously and
  Improbably Deformed
  [U.H.I.D.], an agnostic-style
  12-step support group for
  what it calls the
  'aesthetically challenged.'

That list goes on for pages. It's a list to make you throw up. To make you hate a non-God and his infinite jests. Then comes a sweet melody like
  The Moms calls the
  houseplants her Green
  Babies, and she has a
  rather spectacular thumb,
  plant-wise, for a Canadian.

Sentence-wise, Wallace likes those diatonic melodies amid the tutti, double-forte dissonances. And one is grateful.

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