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REVIEWING

Booker T. Washington Rediscovered

Edited by Michael Scott Bieze and Marybeth Gasman

The John Hopkins University Press | 2012

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

michael scott

“Cast down your bucket where you are.” Booker T. Washington, 1895, in a speech before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta.

  Once, when I was an undergraduate at New York University, I participated in a public debate. The question on the floor: Resolve, who was right, Booker T. Washington or Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in regard to which direction Negroes should go?

Since I organized the debate, I assigned myself the role of Booker T. Washington, the second ever nationally known black leader in America, following in the giant footsteps of Frederick Douglass, and who has been called a founding father of African American education in the United States because he founded the famed Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1891.

***

To this day, I am convinced that I could have won that debate if my opponent hadn’t gone Baptist Minister, and stomped all over me.

He quickly took over, and soon had the crowd in an uproar. My cool, impeccable logic meant little here.

Still, for most of my adult life, Booker T. Washington’s main message has stayed with me: blacks needed to keep producing things, like they were once forced to do in slavery; and now make it work for them. I chose to take the role of Washington in that debate because I had felt that Booker T. and I had reached the same conclusion: it was for very real reasons that black slaves were the most valuable people in the new world.

***

Booker T. Washington Rediscovered is a very interesting way to present both the ideas and the man behind them: a mixed race ex-slave, who rose to become one of the most important figures in American life, and his fame became worldwide.

His book Up from Slavery, first published in 1901, has never gone out of print.

***

“In 1895,” writes the online site historymatters.gmu.edu, “Booker T. Washington gave what later came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise speech before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His address was one of the most important and influential speeches in American history, guiding African-American resistance to white discrimination and establishing Washington as one of the leading black spokesmen in America. Washington’s speech stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the racist order under which Southern African Americans lived. In 1903, Washington recorded this portion of his famous speech, the only surviving recording of his voice.”

Washington’s many distracters, especially Dr. Du Bois, often cite this speech as proof that he had become the dreaded Uncle Tom, the turn coat, the sell-out, the person all African Americans have been taught, for good reasons, for generations, to hate and despised, even more than the Northern European settlers.

***

We have none of this in Booker T. Washington Rediscovered. We meet Booker T. Washington by the many magazine articles he wrote, all in their original, printed form, typos and all; and the many speeches he gave.

“Booker T. Washington,” the editors write, “was once one of the Progressive Age’s most popular speakers on both sides of the color line. His public speaking gift first received acclaim when a New York Times reporter mentioned the young Washington’s skill in an article, after hearing Washington speak at his 1875 Hampton Institute graduation. Debating and public speaking became his passion.”

As I read this, I once more marveled at the role great public speaking has played in human history. To repeat myself, the speech, it seems, has always been more compelling than either the pen, or the sword.

***

I would recommend this book to those who may have heard of the famed “Wizard of Tuskegee,” but know little of what he stood for. With Booker T. Washington Rediscovered, we hear directly from him, with no historians, or political types with an ax to grind, or even being celebratory, weighing in.

Booker T. Washington was once one of the most famous persons in the world. The school he founded still educates scores of black people, both men and women. And it has served a great need, welcoming everyone from newly freed slaves, to the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War Two.

Singer/songwriter Lionel Richie grew up on the campus of Tuskegee; his grandfather's house was right across the street from the home of the president of the college. It was there, later as a student, that he helps form The Commodores, who went on to have many national hit records.

Richie became a single act as a singer/songwriter, and has had much success. But he is not done. In what is an excellent love kiss to the school, the region, and the kinds of music it produced, Richie has given us what I think is the CD of 2012, Tuskegee.

***

I know personally, if I knew little about someone like Booker T. Washington, I would want to know more, and this book would be a great place to start.


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REVIEWING

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cheryl Strayed

Knopf | 2012 | 336 pages | $25.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


cheryl strayed

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

We all probably fantasize about “escape” at one time or another, a seductive, thrilling challenge—climbing Mt. Everest or backpacking through…  In our minds, the journey will be transformative, shaking us out of our malaise or easing our deepest pain. 

Few of us act on these impulses, however—they seem too extreme, too indulgent, and in many cases too physically difficult.  But for some the pull is too hard to resist.  They are the ones who actually go to REI and buy the backpacks and ice picks.  Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, a wild landscape which stretches from Mexico to Canada, is one of these fearless souls and her recent memoir Wild is a testimony to her spirit.

 Wild is a riveting book.  Strayed’s writing is frank, earthy, and at times hilarious.  She turns the “adventurer-into-the woods” memoir (often dominated by men) on its head by focusing as much on her failures as she does on her accomplishments.  I’ve read plenty of mountaineering memoirs, such as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a marvelous, recent classic that kept me on the edge of my seat, as well as other books by expert mountaineers. 

But these disaster books often focus on egregious “mistakes” the rock climbers make (if only the climbers would have turned around before they reached the top!; if only the novices weren’t so cocky, then they would have survived!).  The dizzying description of gear and position and climbing vernacular can make the reading slow going.  One of the messages of the books seems to be this:  IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED, YOU WILL FAIL.

Strayed’s book couldn’t be more different.  She admits from the outset that she knows absolutely nothing about hiking.  She’s camped, but has never been backpacking.  She knows nothing about water purification, rattlesnake wounds, or how to light a portable camp cook stove.  In fact, her purification system barely works (it’s incredibly hard to pump) and she fills the stove with the wrong kind of gas.  She even buys the wrong size hiking boot, making one part of her journey absolutely tortuous as her toes pound against the front of her shoe (by the end of the hike, five toenails have turned black and she plies them off, an especially gruesome, yet telling detail). 

The book is full of these blunders.  In fact, one of the most ironic moments in the book is when she’s about ready to hike the first day.  Looking proudly at her monstrous bag of gear as she sits in a hotel room in Mojave, California, she feels ready for her adventure, yet when she tries to put her pack on, she realizes it’s impossible for her to lift it off the ground.  She finally manages to strap the pack she later names “Monster” on her back and heads out, clear-headed, but essentially unprepared.

I’ve rarely read a book where I felt more empathy with the writer.  When Strayed is blazing hot and dusty with her hair matted in the blistering desert, I too felt hot.  When she gets a string of licorice or a ripe peach from kind souls she meets along the way, I too, rejoiced at the offerings.  When she almost runs out of water, I felt myself dying of thirst.  This immediacy is a testament to Strayed’s writing, which is pitch-perfect and sensual.

So why does she set out on the journey in the first place?  Strayed begins to envision her journey after the death of her mother.  After going to the doctor for symptoms of a cold, Strayed’s mother succumbs to cancer a couple of months later at the age of forty-five.  Crushed with grief and unable to exist in the world anymore, Strayed’s life quickly unravels.  The twenty-two year old doesn’t finish college though she only has one paper to write, begins sleeping with a variety of men, and eventually falls for heroin.  Needless to say, her marriage falls apart.  She barely recognizes herself as she slips further and further away from the responsible, curious girl she was. 

The pages where she describes her love and fierce loyalty to her mother are almost painful to read.  Growing up poor, Cheryl’s mother used every ounce of her being to make her children feel loved and wanted.  And Cheryl felt loved.  Loved entirely.  That is why she feels so abandoned.  It is only when she is on the trail that she realizes she is angry at her mother’s death as well as heart-broken.  She cannot fathom being alone.

At the age of twenty-six, four years after her mother’s death, she sets out on the trail.  For Strayed the trail is healing.  She does not describe the trail as healing; she does not use purple prose or corny metaphors.  In fact, much of what she imagines happening on the trip does not happen—she does not sleep under the stars (instead preferring the false protection of her tent) or gaze at the sunsets endlessly or bathe in the freezing lakes for more than a cursory plunge.  But what does happen is nothing short of miraculous; she falls under the spell of “trail magic,” a common name for the grace and miracles which happen on the PCT.

Part of the magic is in the fellow travelers.  One of the delights of the book is Strayed’s description of the people she encounters on her trip.  Because of the brutal nature of the course—the unrelenting heat, the elevation, the solitariness—those who do attempt the trail are a breed apart: people who have come to the realization that they must do the trail in order to survive in some fundamental way.  We do not know why many of them are there; we feel as readers, though that they belong there. So she meets Greg, an accountant with a cool-headed approach to the trail, who boosts her spirits when she has the most doubts about her abilities to handle this. 

The dynamics on the trail is fascinating—you may camp with someone one night and then not see them for a couple of weeks; you will see their tracks in the snow or read their messages on the PCT logbooks.  The trail walkers give each other nicknames such as the three young guys with good climbing skills who are named “Three Young Bucks.”  This is all part of the jargon, the inner circle of knowledge of the trail.  Only those on the trail, hiking day after day could appreciate one cold beer, a piece of fruit, the gloriousness of a shower….

As well as hikers, Strayed meets a host of characters along the way.  One man named Paco gives her his Bob Marley shirt and says, “I can see that you walk with the spirits of the animals, with the spirits of the earth and sky.”  Another man researching “hobos” is sure that Strayed is one herself, in spite of the fact that she feels she’s not.  He insists on interviewing her for his article, one he claims will end up in Harpers.  She gets off the trail for a while in Oregon and ends up hooking up with a guy she meets at a concert.  She hitchhikes and gets rides from all sorts of different strangers—the working poor, the wealthy.  They take her to their houses and feed her, they give her fancy mixed drinks, and they say she is so cool for being a woman gutsy enough to do what she’s doing. 

One of the tensions in the book is whether Strayed will get the supplies she needs and how she will survive on what little she has.  Periodically on the trail a friend sends her supplies and the cash she packed back home.  In spite of this there is a time in the book when she is down to two pennies.  Literally two cents.  There are times when she longs for an ice cream cone, but can’t afford it. But in spite of the glut of physical pain in the book, there is joy. 

Strayed writes, “Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”  And by the end of the journey, you as a reader feel a sense of that clarity—you know the vulnerable twenty-six year old has made it.


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REVIEWING

Midnight in Peking

By Paul French

A Penguin Title | 2012 | 381 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Andrea Janov

paul french

Midnight in Peking by Paul French is the story of a murder filled with money, beauty, gore, deception, and cover up—everything a great mystery needs to capture readers. What makes Midnight in Peking even more gripping is that it is the true story of the 1937 murder of Pamela Werner, a British girl living in Peking, China.

In the winter of 1937 dead bodies were not an uncommon sight, poverty, suicide, and political killings were the most common causes, but this murder was different. Pamela, the daughter of former British consul, E.T.C. Werner, was visiting her home of Peking on Christmas break when her body was found so severely beaten and disfigured authorities noted it as one of the worst cases of mutilation they had ever seen.

Though this is a non-fiction book, it reads like a novel. French uses a story telling style to establish the setting and the characters that we will be following throughout the investigation. More importantly, though the book is loaded with facts, he shows us those facts instead of merely telling them to us. As the detectives are learning about Pamela’s life, we the reader are learning about the society, culture, and atmosphere that was overtaking Peking in 1937.

We learn that most foreigners living in Peking were wealthy and lived in the Legation Quarter, a section of the city that was a mini European city with armed guards posted at each of its gated entrances, while most of the Chinese citizens were poor and fearful of the impending war. We are along for the ride as the detectives are interviewing witnesses and following leads. The writing style will suck you in and the story gives validity to the cliché that  truth is stranger than fiction.

In accordance with custom, in the event of the murder of a British citizen on Chinese soil, the Chinese Detectives Bureau would handle the investigation and invite a British envoy to monitor, keeping the British government apprised of the progress. Under this agreement Chinese Colonel Han and Scotland Yard trained Detective Chief inspector Richard Dennis begin to search for the murderer of Pamela Werner as Peking descended into fear with the threat of a Japanese invasion.

We follow Han and Dennis was they question Pamela’s friends, suitors, and father in order to recreate the events that led up to her death. We are introduced to Pamela, a young woman who was raised in the Tartar City, an area just outside of the protected Legation Quarter, because her father wanted her to have a more authentic way of life in China.

We explore Pamela’s life at school in Tientsin and her home life with Werner. We are enthralled as we investigate the cabarets and brothels located in the Badlands where respected foreigners and the underbelly of Peking rubbed elbows, and everything was available for a price. French leads readers down the same dead ends and false paths as Han and Dennis followed trying to find evidence and witnesses. We muddle through information, trying to make the connection to Pamela and her ill fate, and like the detectives, we become frustrated with the bureaucratic limitations that the governments are placing on the investigation, and the lack of strong suspects.

After 13 months of investigation and a strong gut feeling of who was responsible, Dennis returned to his position as chief of police in Tientsin and 6 months later Pamela’s death is declared, “murder by a person or persons unknown.”  We  are as dejected as Dennis, but have not been able to make sense of all the evidence. By this point, the Chinese newspapers had already lost interest in the story and the people were preoccupied with the Japanese presence. Pamela’s murder was forgotten by all, except her father.

When Pamela’s father begins his private investigation is the point where I couldn’t put the book down (Literally, I read it straight through to the end). E.T.C. Werner spends his savings and dedicates the rest of his life to solving his daughter’s murder. Using methods that the detectives shunned he begins to uncover witnesses and make connections that the police never made (or never revealed). Piece by piece E.T.C. discovers how horrific his daughter’s death truly was.

As we follow E.T.C.’s investigation we are presented with many of the same witnesses and events, yet in a different light. It is in this section where we see what French has been doing throughout the book, he has been presenting us with the evidence in order of discovery instead of directly leading us to the verdict.

I will not reveal anything that E.T.C. discovered, because I want you to be able to enjoy this book as much as I did, and his revelations are a huge part of what makes the book so engrossing.

What I will say is, that like Dennis, the British blocked and dismissed all of the evidence that E.T.C. uncovered and this case remains officially unsolved. During the research and writing of this book, French found an entire box of correspondence between E.T.C. and British Embassy that was filed and forgotten about. It is from those notes that French recreates E.T.C.’s investigation and convinces the reader that he had solved his daughter’s murder and identified her killer.

If you like murder mysteries, you will love this book. If you like true crime stories, you will love this book. If you love anthropological commentary, you will love this book. The murder hooks you, the investigations and cover ups string you along, and the revelations about the police, culture, and diplomatic relations of that time educate you.

To complement the release of this book, Penguin and Paul French have made many materials available online at us.midnightinpeking.com. This site contains, information, maps of old Peking, photos of the key players of the investigation, original news clippings and post cards that add another layer to the historical context in which we have just been immersed.


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REVIEWING

Half-Blood Blues

By Esi Edugyan

Picador/New York | 2012

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

esi edugyan

Jazz. If there is one word for the musical genius of Black people, jazz is that word.

From New Orleans to Cape Town, from Canada to Cuba, thousands of Africans in the Diaspora have turned their triumphs and tribulations into brilliant music.

This art form is both documentation and vehicle, according to Esi Edugyan (The Second Life of Samuel Tyne) in Half-Blood Blues. In this book she recalls the little known fate of Black people trapped in Hitler’s Germany.

The narrative centers on the fictitious and ill-fated Hieronymus Falk (aka Hiero). He is a self-taught jazz genius on the trombone. Not yet 20, Hiero is the heir apparent to Louis Armstrong. The boy is also a Mischling, meaning he’s half German and half Cameroonian, the half-blood of the title.

Like thousands of  Black Germans, Hiero is kidnapped by the Nazis. Because he is Black, he is labeled a defiler of the pure Aryan race, a “Foreign...Stateless person of Negro descent.” At the beginning of the novel he is taken away, most likely to be killed in a death camp.

The novel is told in flashbacks. While it centers on Hiero, his story is not the main one of the book. The real story is that of the narrator, Sid. He is Hiero’s band mate in the quintet, The Hot-Time Swingers. Early in the work, Sid admits that he witnessed Hiero’s arrest and did nothing. Initially, the author lets the reader wonder what he could have done. Sid is also Black. However, he is so light-skinned that he can pass for white. The Nazis might have listened to him had he at least attempted to save Hiero. We learn that Sid passes for white when it suits him.

Why didn’t he help Hiero? As Edugyan outlines, Sid is a complicated man and not a very self-aware one. He begins to see his envy of Hiero when a woman named Delilah Brown scouts the band. The novel combines fictional and factual characters, and the fictitious Brown is the assistant to the factual Louis Armstrong.

Soon after Sid meets her, the two fall in love.  Because Delilah pays special attention to the orphaned Hiero, Sid becomes jealous. Edugyan leads the reader to believe that Sid betrays his friend because of two all consuming emotions—jealousy and envy.  At Delilah’s suggestion, Armstrong “auditions” the band himself and plays a duet with Hiero. Sid is the unwilling witness to the interplay of two titans.

“Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake…It was then that I finally heard it. I heard how damn brilliant the kid really was. I hated it.”

Sid’s playing is so substandard that his band mates wince. Although he says nothing to Sid, Armstrong replaces him on the recording that the band makes soon after. Then Delilah dumps Sid after he accuses her of having a romantic relationship with Hiero.

However, these are the least of Sid’s or the band’s troubles. Light-skinned or not, he’s an American living in Berlin when the fascists take over. If native Germans are in danger from their own government, foreigners are special targets.

However, Germany didn’t become a monster overnight, according to the author. The rise of the Third Reich was the culmination of decades of moral disintegration. In one passage, Hiero takes Sid to Hagenbecks, the human zoo in Hamburg, Germany. “These are the dangerous animals,” Hiero said bitterly. Germany was the first country to have an exhibition of live human beings. Later on in the paragraph, it seems apparent that one of the people on display might be Hiero’s own father. Germans, and indeed anyone, come to the zoo to gawk at the natives whom they believe are a sub-species.

Edugyan goes on to demonstrate the treatment of Jews by the Nazis in wrenching detail. Paul, the band’s pianist is a blonde, blue-eyed, Jewish man, who passes for Aryan to survive. At one point, the Nazis attack him and Hiero. Sid explains how he and the other band members save the two from certain death. “Big Fritz. He seized the Boot brawling with Paul by the back of the neck. Lifting him clean off his feet, he thrown him down on the cobblestones like a sack of meat. Started stomping him shitless.” It’s clear that Paul and Hiero were lucky to have friends willing to fight for and with them. It’s also clear that millions of other Jews weren’t so fortunate.

Hitler was the duly elected abomination of a people who had waited for him for decades, as this book clarifies. Worse, his regime was unstoppable—at least in Europe, as history clarifies. No sooner do the Hot Time Swingers escape to Paris, than France declares war on Germany.

Edugyan’s imagery creates an immediacy that places the reader in Paris. Slowly, the French start to lose the war. There are food shortages for short periods of time. Then the periods are longer. Then there is no food. Businesses close over night. By the time winter sets in, there is no fuel. The French burn their furniture to stay warm.  All the trains stop running. There is no electricity. The French government abandons its citizens. One day, German tanks roll into the city, and the German soldiers round up the people that they want to kill. The band members are trapped inside the country that was to have been their sanctuary.

German soldiers come for  all of them in different ways and at different times. Because the love of the music has made the band a family, the Hot Time Swingers protect and sometimes sacrifice for each other. Despite being hunted like animals, the band rehearses for a record. For the most part, they live for the music and one another.

Like a riff, the narrative switches to the 1990s where some of the band’s survivors are trying to make a go of their lives. A filmmaker makes a documentary about the Hot Time Swingers, and forces these now elderly men to relive painful events of their pasts.

An untrustworthy guide at times, Sid reveals a multi-layered and harmonic story. All of the pieces of this book work in unison like instruments. One melody traces the moral degeneration of a people. Another appreciates the sacrifices thousands made to help others.

Yet, the riff that runs through the book is that the love of jazz and, equally important, the love for each other sustained the band members when they had nothing and no one else. Edugyan has recounted a little known but important history. Hers is a beautifully written book. She shows the music is in the blood lines of a people and in all those that love jazz. Love of this art form transcends all kinds of barriers.


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REVIEWING

The Invitation

By Anne Cherian

WW Norton & Company | 2012 | 295 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Janet Garber


anne cherian

Melting. . .But Sticking to the Sides of the Pot!

What a potent theme–The Other.  Is all literature written by someone standing outside in the rain with her nose pressed up against the windowpane? The great French philosopher/writer, Simone de Beauvoir, saw Man as The Human, Woman as The Other.  With this setup, she noted, the chances for a soul-sustaining experience of Love were seriously compromised:  “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself -- on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life . . .” (The Second Sex).

Cherian concerns herself here with the way the lives of four people play out, all but one of whom hail originally from India, four friends (two couples) who reunite 25 years after their graduation from UCLA. In college they called themselves the Gang of Four and included a fifth hanger-on in their circle.  As Indians living in America, they are definitely The Other, trying, as immigrants, to adapt to a vastly different culture, new mores, and behaviors, while somehow squaring their actions with their traditions, religion, cultural beliefs, and habits from the old country.

Couple Number One: Frances and Jay were considered a love match; he defied his parents’ expectations by picking his own bride and marrying well beneath his station in life.  Did they marry because he felt obligated after dating for a year?  Possibly.  They have three children, including an underachieving teenager who they see as a “disgrace to the race.” Interestingly, both of them appear surprised that they have not achieved more in their careers.  He’s in middle management and she’s in real estate.  It’s a struggle to maintain a middle class existence.  They feel like failures.

Couple Number Two:  Lali and Jonathan represent the intermarried (he is Jewish).  He is a Harvard cardiologist and she works in the English department as a secretary. They have one son who wants to take a year off from Harvard–unheard of in the immigrant Indian community.  They fell in love in college but now Jonathan is taking an obsessive interest in his own religion and they are becoming more and more estranged.  Lali thinks of straying. . . .

Couple Number Three: Vikram, the hanger-on and Priya, whom they only meet in the present.  Vik is the quintessential Aspergian nerd who meets with fabulous success.  Coming from the humblest of beginnings, he personifies the ideal immigrant success story, having founded his own computer company.  He has all the trappings of success, including a huge McMansion overlooking the water, and is very conscious of competing with the Joneses.  Of all the friends, he is the most unwaveringly traditional, adhering to an Indian code of behavior almost without deviation.  He agrees to an arranged marriage, has two sons, and plans to bring the eldest into the business regardless of what his son thinks about it.

This cast of characters is united by an invitation to Vik’s son’s graduation party and the novel closes with another invitation, a surprise to the readers.  Within this frame, we learn about the dynamics of each family, with flashbacks from the present to the college days. 

Gradually we see that the absolute need to preserve Indian values while assimilating to American culture has forced most of these characters into withholding crucial information from their respective spouses.  These secrets prove the undoing of some.  It is clear that no amount of assimilation to American ways can undo childhood enculturation–we are shaped by our origins, inescapably shaped.  A prime example is Vik himself who the others proclaim is unremittingly stingy despite his great wealth.

The story unfolds neatly, told through shifting points of view, and all in all, it’s smooth going down.  Familiar themes abound: generational divides, skewed expectations regarding children, immigrants overcompensating, gossip and jealousy among expatriates, the vicissitudes of marriage.  There are no big issues tackled or radical ideas, but rather a made-for-TV quality.  The identity crises are more focused on how to save face within the Indian expat community than in how to fit in with American culture. 

Women in these marriages remain The Other, powerless to change their husbands’ perceptions, reduced to hiding important facets of themselves from the men nearest and dearest to their hearts.  Only one, Priya, takes charge and succeeds in imposing her will, but in a 50’s passive-resistance kind of way.  Sadly, the husbands do not always seem to know what good devoted wives they really have.

Cherian offers her readers a fascinating peek into her own culture (she’s the product of a Jewish/Indian marriage), spotlighting some of the well-guarded secrets of men and women, and their destructive force, as she ultimately stresses the universality of family, love, marriage, and friendship.


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REVIEWING

Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008

By John Leonard

Viking | 2012 | 381 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Amanda Martin

john leonard

“...I found that to get free copies of books from New York publishers, all you had to do was promise to review them, ”writes John Leonard at the start of Reading For My LIfe.  “So while I worked on my third first novel, I also scheduled myself to talk about brand new books like V, Herzog, Hall of Mirrors . . . And I talked about new novels from abroad like The Tin Drum, The Golden Notebook, and The Mandarins. . . Loving such books wasn’t exactly molecular biology or particle physics; you merely had to trust the tingle in your scalp, a kind of sonar, and their deeper chords possessed you.”       

   Reading for My LIfe, Writings, 1958-2008, is a collection of Leonard’s reviews and essays culled from a career that spanned more than 50 years. Edited by his wife, Sue Leonard, it is a book whose publication Leonard, who died in 2008,  did not live to see. Besides the essays and reviews, from 1958’s The Cambridge Scene, written when Leonard was 19-years-old, to the 2005 review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, it also includes a lovely introduction by E.L. Doctorow and a final section of appreciative essays and remembrances by friends and family who loved and valued him.

Being a lover of books myself and therefore an avid reader of book reviews, I had probably read Leonard prior to 1988, when he began appearing on television where he ‘delivered myself of a five-minute ‘media criticism,’ a sort of sermonette, on CBS Sunday Mornings.”

Those appearances though is where I first became aware of him (he writes that people began to recognize him and stop him on the street to ask him if he wrote his own stuff) and I feel lucky to have watched him, because I can hear his voice as I read his words, as he shares his love of books and authors with some of the most beautiful prose language you will ever read — it will make your scalp tingle.

Listen to him on Don DeLillo’s Libra (a novel on the Kennedy assassination): “And what does the historian decide - after his access to goats’ heads and pajama tops; psychiatrists and KGB defectors; confidential Agency files and transcripts of the secret hearings of congressional committees, wiretaps, polygraphs, Dictabelt recordings, postoperative X-rays, computer enhancements of the Zapruder film, Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental chart, microphotographs of strands of Oswald’s pubic hair (smooth, not knobby), FBI reports on dreams ... and the long roster of the conveniently dead?”

Talking about Norman Mailer in a review of Harlot’s Ghost (a novel about the CIA): “When his battery’s charged, Mailer windmills from one paragraph to the next — baroque, anal, Talmudic, olfactory, portentous, loopy, coy, Egyptian; down and dirty  in the cancer, the aspirin or the plastic; shooting moons on sheer vapor; blitzed by paranoia and retreating for a screen pass, as if bitten in the pineal gland by a deranged Swinburne, with metaphors so meaning-moistened that they stick to our thumbs with ‘intellections’ (as he once put it) slapped on ‘like adhesive plasters.’ . . . Ghosts! Pirates! Indians! Animism! Alchemy!

“You either like this stuff or you don’t, and I do.”

(Which is my comment on Leonard’s style as well. I do like.)

At his death at the age of 69 from lung cancer, John Leonard  was the television critic for New York Magazine and a regular book critic for Harper’s Magazine.  He had been the book editor of The New York Times for four years during the 1970‘s and afterwards a cultural critic for it; he contributed freelance reviews to the paper almost until his death. Besides CBS Sunday Morning, Leonard could also be heard regularly on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.  He was a reviewer or contributing editor for practically every national print outlet, including The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Salon, New York, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post Book World. Besides publishing many volumes of criticism, Leonard also wrote four novels. Considering the path taken, Leonard writes in Reading For My LIfe:

“Looking back on what became of me, I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be Dostoyevsky or Gunter Grass or Doris Lessing. I know perfectly well that the relationship between critic and author is more often parasitic that it’s symbiotic. ‘Insects sting’ Netizsche told us, ‘not in malice, but because they want to live. It is the same for critics, they desire our blood, not our pain.’

“But when you love these books, they love you back. Having identified with someone else’s imagination, having gone through that shadowy door into realms of feeling never glimpsed before with such luster, having seen centaurs and witches and flying fish and bare ruined choirs and the glowing cores and burning grids and neon clouds and crystal nerves and singing spheres of cyberspace, of thought itself — you are more interesting, and so is the world.”

You will want to read Leonard because he is writing about are books that will always be worth reading; authors that will always be worth studying: Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion. Leonard does not just concentrate on the book at hand, he seems to have read every book by the author in question and is able to bring in themes and characters to compare and contrast from them all with the current work; as well as a framework of history, philosophy and psychology. And Leonard’s insights into the authors and their works is worth reading.

For example —

In a review of Milan Kundera’s Immortality:  “He has written this novel in front of our eyes, out of chance encounters with enigmatic strangers and radio news reports of anomalous events, and imaginary conversations among the lofty likes of Goethe and Hemingway, and snippets of books, and shards of memory. He has interpolated little essays — on journalism, sentimentality, coincidence, astrology, and the phases of the erotic moon — that turn out, of course, not to be digressions at all. Everything fits inside like the hasp on the jewel box or the folding of a fan. Left in the air, like smoke, are ghosts and grace notes.

“I’m sure there’s a musical analogue; there usually is in Kundera’s fiction; Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Beethoven’s last quarter or any one of sixteen fugues by Bach. ‘Our lives are composed like music,’ Kundera told us in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘and if we listen well, they will speak to us in the heightened language of secret motifs, which are really the accidents of our becoming transformed into significance by a roused imagination.’

On Salman Rushdie’s controversial The Satanic Verses: “Headlines keep getting in the way . . . For a couple of minutes, let’s try to see the book through the bonfires of its burning.

“As much as Islam, Salman Rushdie blasphemes Thatcherism. He’s unkind, too, to V.S Naipul. ‘Pitting levity against gravity,’ altogether impious The Satanic Verses is one of those go-for-broke ‘metafictions,’ a grand narrative and Monty Python send-up of history, religion, and popular culture; Hindu cyclic and Muslim dualistic; postcolonial identity crisis and modernist pastiche; Bombay bombast and stiff-upper-liposuction; babu babytalk and ad agency neologism; cinema gossip; elephant masks, pop jingles, lazy puns, kinky sex ad schadenfreude; a sort of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City — from which this slyboots Author-God tip-and-twinkletoes away, with a cannibal grin. ‘Who am I?’ he asks us. ‘Let’s put it this way: Who has the best tune?’

The Satanic Verses lacks the ravening poser, the great gulp, of Midnight’s Children and Shame. It bites off the heads of its characters instead of digesting their essences. It’s got too much on its troubled mind to make a symphonic noise out of so many discords. Of course, in its huge dishevelment, its Leaves of Grass lurchings and scourges, whistles and vapors, belly laughs and belly flops,  it’s infinitely more interesting than those hundreds of neat little novels we have to read between Rushdies.”

The reviews and essays are in chronological order and the year is listed in the table of contents, but not at the top of each review.  It is interesting to read them as artifacts of their time. For instance in his 1958 essay “The Demise of Greenwich Village” it is startling to read: “Walk into any bar, and the first thing you notice is the homosexuals” and “The Village is one of the few publicized habitats of the lesbian.” Good to know that 50 years later homosexuality is no longer looked upon as a subject for anthropological discussion, but one of civil rights. (For the record, the 20-year-old Leonard was not then, nor was he ever, homophobic).

Sometimes knowing the future is gives added resonance to Leonard’s pronouncements, such as in his 1962 review of Richard Nixon’s Six Crisis. “...I read and review his book because I am fascinated by the flower of rot, and I think more interesting and instructive than Richard Nixon the success is Richard Nixon the failure. I think that is more meaningful than the man of tricks is the man of tricks reduced to desperation.”

Sometimes he can sound almost prescient: from his 1978 review of Edward Said’s Orientalism: “Explain please, our ignorance and resentment of Islam. How long is this medieval hangover, this Constantinople of the fearful imagination supposed to last? “ And then there is the more things change the more they remain the same: in his 1993 open letter to the newly elected Bill Clinton - Dear Bill (on the Occasion of his Inauguration) - Leonard writes: “I’d like you to listen to the dispossessed. The world is full of them. . . But we know you’ve got the Justice Department to fix up first off, and then health care, and after that (who knows?) maybe campaign financing so that the greedhead lobbyists won’t disembowel every other program you propose. So I’ll stick here to the domestic dispossessed.” And he goes on to list women (although) “ . . . I suppose I don’t have to remind you to listen to the women, not with Hillary around. Nor to the children, not with Marian Wright Edelman standing right next to Hillary. But you ought to be listening to the inner cities . . . “ and he continues, lecturing Clinton on the difference between the median household worth between Anglo and non-Anglo households in Los Angeles, referencing statistics in Michael Katz’s The Undeserving Poor which show that only 0.8% of the GNP is spent on welfare, mostly for Social Security, citing Barbara Ehrenreich, who has pointed out that statistically the number of rich white men who have never married is almost exactly the same as the number of poor black single mothers and then quoting her,  “In the absence of all the old-fashioned ways of redistributing wealth — progressive taxation, job programs, adequate welfare, social services, and other pernicious manifestations of pre-Reaganite ‘big government’ — the rich will just have to marry the poor.”

There is more. Fifty years worth of Leonard championing civil rights, women’s liberation, the need to pay attention to writers who are not white and male (Toni Morrison invites him to go with her to receive the Nobel prize because of his support). He examines the Ed Sullivan Show, giving us a cultural history of the 1950s and ‘60s and the move from a Global Village with a shared common culture (white as that may be) to the disintegration of the 1960’s where households had more than one TV set, the number of channels increased from 3 to 100, and kids and parents had different music (though they could watch all of it together on The Ed Sullivan Show). Fifty years worth of Leonard loving books and championing the artists who create them.

Leonard knows so much, is passionate about so much, and it is contagious.

Read this book slowly, no more than a chapter a night. Maybe a chapter a month. Give yourself time to look up the words, look up the references, check out the book he is writing about, or the other books that Leonard is referencing. Savor his words, enjoy his intelligence, feel his passion. And laugh out loud at his humor.    This is rich stuff.


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REVIEWING

C.G. JUNG – A BIOGRAPHY IN BOOKS

By Sonu Shamdasani

W.W. Norton and Company | 2012 | 224 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen


soni shamdasani

First, let’s get physical. This 11 ½ by 10 coffee table book, is, before anything else, an artistic treasure. Your eyes will linger on the front cover for many minutes, before you venture beyond. The heavy high quality paper, the reproductions of color plates and lithographs of treasured writings in every form and, yes, even the heavily inked fragrance within its bindings are all momentary distractions from the actual copy. If ever there was a book to “fondle,” this is it.

Sonu Shamdasani,  considered to be the ultimate authority on Jung, is the Philemon Professor of Jung History at the Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines at University College London. Born in Singapore in 1962, he grew up in England, and first discovered Jung in his teens when traveling through India in search of a guru. There he came across the text for The Secret of The Golden Flower, his first encounter with psychology. Engaged in further study, he concluded that psychology and psychotherapy “was in a mess” and he was determined to figure out how it got that way, thus his immersion in its history.

In this book, we enter the virtual world of Jung’s library, an almost holy place where learning is elevated to a transcendent  experience. This is not only a book of Jung’s writings. It is mostly a book of writings that made Jung the person he became.

The pages, abundantly illustrated with photographs of previously unseen manuscripts, copies of rare first editions, and annotated books by some of Jung’s favorite writers, scholars, and philosophers, are an open sesame to a very private library, and they trace Jung’s intellectual development through the massive readings which lead him to formulate new conceptions of human nature.

Using his training in psychology, as well as his extensive knowledge of Western literature, Jung integrated his study of religion and mythology into a combination of all of those elements, and produced a cohesive psychological oeuvre.

In a sense this book is a mystery as it unravels Jung’s investigative tools: the literary and mythological sources that informed his own fantasies and how his own self reflections were the seeds from which sprung his new psychology.  These pages include reproductions of his notebooks, (many illegible) wherein he wrestled with the symbolism and meaning of alchemy ( any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value), and sought to find connections between science and religion. Other pages include reprints of original manuscripts in German and Swiss.

   The opening paragraphs describe Jung’s recurrent dream, about two adjacent houses containing libraries with 16th and 17th century literature, books with strange symbolism, and references to alchemy. That dream, of an unknown library actually became a reality in the discovery of the library of  Martin Bodner, possibly unknown to Jung, but nonetheless a bibliophile radiating the same passion for knowledge  as Jung. This book draws from both of these collections and is likened to a stroll through both libraries.

As far back as his youth Jung had a craving for books and the written word, with an eclectic taste, delving into poetry, religion, drama, travel, and science. When he was 15, he read Goethe’s Faust, happy to have discovered someone who took the devil seriously, recognizing the existence of evil and its mysterious role in the individual psyche.  From Faust, he migrated to Schopenhauer and Kant and was haunted by the concept that all knowledge could not be derived from experience alone, and that another component had to be “things as they were in themselves–and that phenomena” is part of the knowledge base.

He chose to study medicine as a means of making a living, but continued his studies and extra-curricular reading and came to accept the concept of the influence of the unconscious on human personality and behavior. Correcting the “conventional wisdom”  that he had derived his concept of the unconscious from Freud, he noted, ‘I had these thoughts long before I came to Freud. Unconscious is an epistemological (relating to the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge) term deriving from von Hartmann”  (Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) a scholar whose major work, The Philosophy of the Unconscious, was another significant influence on Jung’s thinking).

The text covers much of Jung’s writings and noteworthy concepts and theories, spending much time on his use of fantasy and dreams, his conclusions about archetypes and the shadow side of life, and about the collective unconscious as well as references to his Red Book. The text also includes countless citations of his readings in science and philosophy and literature, with comments on their influences on his thinking.  The footnotes are prodigious and tell their own story.

This is a kaleidoscopic overview of Carl Gustav Jung in all of his professional manifestations. And it feels good, too.


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REVIEWING

An American Spy

By Olen Steinhauer

Read by: David Pittu

Macmillan Audio | 2012 | Running time: 13.5 hours | 11 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey


olen steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer is, as declared by the synopsis, by far the best espionage writer in a generation. And An American Spy is the coup de grâce that ends his trilogy of spy novels wrapped around the secretive Department of Tourism and our star spy, Milo Weaver. Fear not though; with an ending that opens itself to a new series involving a new agency and a changing of the guard, er, characters, I am certain that we haven’t heard the last of Steinhauer, nor have we listened to his last thriller.

An American Spy is a self-contained novel allowing the listener to want for nothing in terms of the prequels. The back-story blends in seamlessly as the Chinese are at it again and the Americans have scores to settle. The storytelling follows each of the main players in turn, unraveling the plot and raising questions as it rolls along. Olen has a gift for creating empathetic characters, which makes it difficult to determine exactly who is the hero, who is the villain, or which of these characters is the “American spy.” These questions grab the reader’s attention and make listening to An American Spy an incredible pleasure.

That said, as a spy novel, An American Spy does contain some of the tacky setup up I feel is almost inherent in the genre, but I applaud Steinhauer for sparing us from an excessive amount. There were times as a listener when I felt bombarded with names, (and at the risk of sounding ignorant or worse) many of them Chinese, and found myself struggling to keep tabs on who was who and what their significance was. This could be a result of the audio format, the fact that I missed the first two books in the series, or my own concentration problems, but that’s where David Pittu flexes his vocals and helped me through the dialogue with various voices attempting to be characters from all over the globe, from China to Sudan and even to Germany.

Ultimately, the flow of the story, its high points, shocking moments, and unexpected twists and turns pull  listeners in easily and will undoubtedly bring a smile to their faces. There is a human characteristic to Steinhauer’s storytelling and character development that makes listening to his works, or reading them I imagine, a comforting (while still incredibly thrilling) experience.


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REVIEWING

Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Technology)

By Andre Millard

John Hopkins Press | 2012 | 346 pages

Reviewed by Steve Kates


On a cold, blustery night in February of 1964, a seismic blow struck the music industry in the solar plexus: The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show. One can hardly imagine a more disparate confrontation of show biz talents – Sullivan, the dour, almost somnolent gossip columnist turned omnipotent TV host, and the youthful, exuberant, irreverent, and pixyish British quartet.

The studio nearly burst its seams as the Fab Four (not yet so named) went bouncing through their act.

Appearing on Sullivan was the precursor equivalent of a star turn on the Johnny Carson show – it could make or break a career, and on that momentous evening, the Beatles began, in earnest, their conquest of American and, ultimately, worldwide popular music.

Why it has taken forty-eight years for Beatlemania to be published is a moot question, but the more relevant query is:  Was this book truly needed?

The Beatles were young men in skinny three-button collarless suits, shirts, and ties, with soup bowl haircuts, castigated as the devil’s spawn and the downfall of American youth. Times change. In the glaring spotlight of hindsight 48 years later, they could have been choirboys from some rural British vicarage.

As author Andre Milard concedes, every conceivable avenue of inquiry regarding the Beatles’ music and personal lives has already been written. He contends that technology and the emerging globalization of world business, and entertainment, made possible the success of the Beatles, and he moves along in soporific detail tracing musical entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. There is, of course, truth in his contention, but it does not explain why the Beatles were exponentially more successful in that same environment than their contemporary competitors.

Milard states that record sales were the goal of the Fab Four in their career arc, and there is some justification for that claim. the Beatles have sold over one billion records worldwide, and sales continue to fill the coffers of the Apple Corporation (the group’s business arm) well after the band’s dissolution and the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison. Adding to the glory of their legacy are the constant technological changes (CDs, itunes, and the like) which generate reissues of the Beatles’ music for new generations of fans.

But were the Beatles a technologically generated phenomenon? The entertainment media (radio, records, movies and television) were established technologies while the Beatles were still in diapers. And the Fab Four certainly did not confine their professional activities to those media – fantastically successful world tours larded their collective coffers and swelled their army of adoring fans.

Significantly, unlike many other more modestly successful rock and roll performers, the Beatles were genuinely and enormously talented, although John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the songwriters of the group) could neither read nor notate music. Their music was derived from many sources, both cultural and historical, and their lyrics spoke of universal longings, as well as universal humor.

I understand the notion that modern developments accelerated and magnified the quartet’s success. The transistor radio and tape recorders gave fans easier and faster access to popular music.  However, it should be noted that all of the competitive rock and roll groups had access to the same developments but simply did not achieve commensurate success: Poor marketing? Less talent? Me-tooism? Fickle teenagers? There are dozens of plausible explanations.

Milard, in my view, takes an inordinately long detour detailing the Beatles’ successes and those of their contemporaries. That particular chapter reads like one of those “and then I wrote” episodes at a testimonial dinner for an aging songwriter. Moreover, I can’t see the relevance of those innumerable references to making the point of technology impelling the Beatles’ success.

Milard’s more valid claim is that the Beatles happened to ride the wave of radio being the dominant music entertainment medium of their day, and when television took center stage, they left the scene. Incredibly, the arc of the Beatles’ performing career spanned only one decade (the 1960s – they broke up in early 1970). Drugs, internal bickering, outside interests and the influence of Yoko Ono on Lennon all contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Andre Milard is a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he does offer a compelling analysis of the demographic scene in America in the 1960s, which included female baby boomers who were now teenagers, flush with spending money and, perhaps subconsciously, anticipating the feminist movement through their quasi-sexually motivated adulation of the Beatles. Young males, too, were caught up in Beatlemania frenzy, slavishly copying Beatles clothing and hairstyles.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Beatlemania was the analysis of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s brilliant development and cosseting of the Fab Four. Epstein, the homosexual son of successful English merchants, was a Beau Brummell with a keen eye for trends in music and fashion, and it is fascinating to track his methodical, calculated creation of the Beatles, as we knew them. The haircuts, the clothing, the joyful parrying of the members with the press and audiences; all of this was choreographed by Epstein (who also managed several other rock groups but none with the unprecedented achievements of his supreme meal ticket).

It was Epstein who systematically maintained the group’s image as wholesome Liverpudlian lads having a good time on stage and off.

He assiduously massaged (greased?) the press into ignoring the backstage orgies and drug usage enjoyed by his protégés, and it was only after their staggering success that he allowed their programmed uniformity to morph into individual hippie, drug-culture personas. 

There is much to be admired in Professor Milard’s Beatlemania. His narrative is literate and (for the most part) well paced. Yet I came away from the book feeling that it was an unnecessary venture which might have been more suitable, and palatable, as a feature article in the New Yorker.


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