I can’t remember a single month with such slim pickings – in quantity, that is, because I loved both of these true stories and recommend them heartily:
- Running the Books, a brilliant memoir of a prison librarian who is able to describe the interactions of inmates and staff as an anthropologist (with a good sense of humor) and also intervene, too much as it turns out, in their lives
- Fixing my Gaze,the story of a neuroscientist on a quest to gain the 3D vision she thought she could never have. Both inspiring and instructive.
What a stupefying mixture of clichés and caricatures! Father Tim goes to Ireland on a vacation, an Ireland that is as green and rural as the travel brochures, and gets to stay in a deluxe bed-and-breakfast where I can only hope the author enjoyed a nice relaxing stay and charged it against her royalties. Inexplicably, he and his long-suffering wife stay through a robbery, a second robbery, and his transformation into the confessor of all parties (and his wife’s into the confidante of the innkeepers’ daughters) — why anyone would pay good money to spend a vacation this way is puzzling. It’s also unclear why they, and they alone, manage to read the supposed diary of the lord of the manor in the 1800s when others present say they simply cannot manage to read it (are the Irish illiterate?), and why the diary is replete with anachronisms, from multiple remarks about chamber pots (worth mentioning by us, since they are rare these days, but surely not then) to long emotional outpourings that seem bizarre when contrasted with the terse first few entries.
In the Company of Others manages to save a few souls. I liked it better when it happened in Father Tim’s home.
The Warmth of Other Suns describes the Great Migration, through which six millions AFrican-American left the segregated South and settled in the North. The story is told largely through the lives of three migrants to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, weaved together with more general considerations and lots of statistics about the migrants and their lives, and a few extra anecdotes about well-known figures such as Jesse Owens, Mahalia Jackson, and Ray Charles.
The horrible treatment of African-Americans in the Jim Crow states in the early 20th century is, unfortunately, not a surprise, but the author also describes the burning of palm trees in the lawn of black families (in Los Angeles), the decisions of factories to hire white immigrants rather than black women to work on assembly lines (in Chicago) and the housing discrimination that raised rent levels for African-Americans 40% higher than for whites (in New York). The North certainly offered better living conditions, but not close to what is right and fair.
What I did not like about the book is the constant repeating of the same facts. Each time the author returns to one of the three stories, which are intertwined in the book, she repeats, it seems, half of the previous chapter, as if the reader could not possibly keep each strand memorized. Yes we can! Still, a very interesting book.
The rich are not like us: they have money, so much money that even when they get drunk, sleep around, allow their children to be abused, or learn they have terminal cancer, there’s a nice cushion to fall back on (and mom arrives on the Concorde). This is pretty much the story of the author, heiress to the fabulous Guinness fortune (a bit ironic that there are so many alcoholics in the family!) and with the last name of her mother’s third husband, a poet and unfortunately depressive man, who nevertheless was her most loving parent while he was alive. Her grandmother may have been friends with the Queen Mum, but her upbringing was rough, and her mom as dysfunctional throughout her life as any.
I liked the candor and rhythm of Why Not Say What Happened? but I found it a little hard to care about a family who’s so pampered, if rather miserable.
I liked Running the Books so much that I really, really hope that this true story of a confused, bright, young would-be writer turned prison librarian is genuine — unlike A Million Little Pieces, for example, which was just too good to be true, but still good!
This memoir tells of the author’s stint as a prison librarian but he’s a lot more: confidant, archivist of the strange poetry inmates try to exchange via library books, activist against corrupt guards, and (dangerously) helper of distraught moms, ambitious pimp-writers, would-be cooking show hosts, and other inmates. From the perfect first sentence, “Pimps make the best librarians”, I was hooked.
Another disappointing Philip Roth novel (after Indignation), Nemesis tells the story of a polio epidemic in 1944, with the predictable tale of a young youth counselor who unknowingly and unwittingly infects an entire summer camp, and ends up ruining his own life through remorse. While the historical context, with the still unknown causes of polio and the resulting hysteria and scapegoating of victims along with the summer camps as a return to (Native American) nature, is quite interesting, the characters are so one-dimensional as to become caricatures, the dialogs can sound downright silly, and some of the narrative seems lifted straight from a history book — when it cannot be predicted by even naive readers thirty pages ahead of time. It could have been so much more!
There are great stories in Let the Great World Spin, as in when the Park Avenue mother of the son killed in Vietnam hosts the group of other mothers, from wildly different backgrounds, but with the same, essential sadness.
And there are also some mind-numbing stories: of the liberation theology priests who rescues prostitutes, of the not so talented artist who drives away from the scene of a deadly accident, of the computer geeks out in California who hack the computer to get free calls to New York while a man walks on a tightrope between the World Trade Center tower. (It’s amazing how quickly technology gets obsolete! TOday we would be watching a live feed.) All these stories artfully contrive to twist together but they read like an exercise of style rather than a coherent whole. Very clever, often finely observed, but a little cold.