Monday, March 28, 2005

Behind the scenes (con't) ...

I am half way through Ian McEwan's Saturday, which I am going to review on Sunday. The novel has been widely, even extravagantly, praised, and it's certainly a fascinating read. But at this juncture I can't quite say I like it. Though I can't quite say I don't, either. I mention this because I thought people might be interested in what goes through a reviewer's mind while reading the book under review. And anyone who reads this may be interested in seeing what I finally say about the book -- as I will myself.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Letters among the issues ...

A couple of blogs devoted usually to politics touch upon literature today: Power Line quotes Shakespeare and George Herbert (as quoted in a New York Times review of Camille Paglia's new book) and Ed Morrissey at Captain’s Quarters comments on what Maureen Dowd has to say about the Vatican and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. And Wretchard at The Belmont Club has a very thoughtful post (which links to a most eloquent one by Donald Sensing) on the spirit of Easter. Note the literary power of the unbowlderized Biblical text.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Arthur Miller & the American Dream

When playwright Arthur Miller died last month, much was made in the obituaries about what his plays had to say about the so-called American Dream. Marilyn Berger, writing in the New York Times, said that Miller’s “work exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream.” CNN declared that his plays depicted “the American Dream gone awry.” The BBC called them “intricate musings on the darkness at the heart of the American Dream.” And Xan Brooks, in the Guardian, described Death of a Salesman, the play that won Miller the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1949, as “a savage assault on the American dream.”
Arthur Miller was decidedly a man of the left, and dissing the American Dream is a favorite pastime of the left. The complaint seems to derive from equating the American Dream with consumerism, the pursuit of material goods. Of course, the left is a bit inconsistent on this point. Only last year, in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank tried to figure out why a majority of the citizens in his native state continue to vote for Republicans, who he says only cater to their “values,” and not for Democrats, whose policies he says favor their true interests — which are strictly material.
Arthur Miller embodied this inconsistency: That a man who hit the jackpot on Broadway early in life (he was only 33 when he won his Pulitzer), who lived an upscale existence in suburban Connecticut, and married Marilyn Monroe should make a career out of denouncing his fellow Americans’ desire for creature comforts is, at the very least, odd.
Moreover, the quest for wealth and comfort hardly started in America. Neither did criticism of it. Recall that Jesus warned his followers against laying up “treasures on earth, where dust and moth consume and thieves break in and steal.” And William Wordsworth, in 1807, composed a sonnet decrying how “the world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
In this country, such criticism appeared early and has been repeated often. Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, deplored “creeping down the road of life, pushing ... a barn seventy-five feet by forty.” From Henry Adams to Henry Miller, from Theodore Dreiser to Sinclair Lewis, criticism of the downside of America’s system of free enterprise has been so common as to almost amount to a cliché.
The American Dream itself, however, can’t be easily equated with crass materialism. As it happens, the phrase “American Dream” not only had a precise time and place of origin, it also had a specific originator: historian James Truslow Adams coined it in his 1931 book The American Epic. According to Adams, it is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Small wonder the dream that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so famously had was, as he put it himself, “deeply in rooted in the American dream.”
In Time magazine’s obituary of Arthur Miller, critic Richard Corliss said that the playwright “saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream.” I must beg to differ with my former classmate: It was Miller who was mistaken, not us. The glory of the American Dream lies in its challenging the very notion of a fixed and determining destiny for anyone. Americans prefer to shape their own destiny. Emerson, not Thoreau, sounded the authentic American refrain — when he admonished his countrymen to “hitch your wagon to a star.”

A book review editor's life (cont'd) ...

Inquirer Features copy editor Paula Goff, who handled Sunday copy a couple of weeks ago, sent me an email about March 20's book page: "Wow, Frank: Black Death. Buboes. Pogroms. Jonestown. Cat-killer. Slimy creature. Armageddon. Children killed. A 17-year-old convicted of murdering his father. Quite the cheery books section this week!"
I hadn't actually noticed any of this until Paula pointed it out, which says something about how one goes about deciding what to review and when. I started out pairing Henning Mankell's Before the Frost (Jonestown) and Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (cat-killer, slimy creature). Then had to sub for book critic Carlin Romano's column and the review of Max Hastings's Armageddon fit the space perfectly. As for my own review of The Great Mortality, about the Black Death -- and wherein porgroms and buboes figure -- well, I had that scheduled weeks before. So the grim consort came together more or less absent-mindedly.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

An encounter with the donkey man ...

I had the pleasure last week of meeting Kevin O’Hara, the author of Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, the book I reviewed on March 13. He is every bit as engaging as his book, which I think will slowly find its audience and become a classic. Click on the link and take a look at the photos, the one thing the book lacks.

Layers of poetry ...

John Perreault has some fascinating poems at Milk Magazine. In the note to the selection from Motets, he points out that the poems "can be read line by line and by separating out the odd lines and then the even ones, to read two additional poems." Stolen Rhymes, from which four poems are slected, borrow the specific rhymes of specific poems (e.g., Byron's "She Walks in Beauty"). Virtuoso stuff.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005)

Novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, author of The Sin Eater and the Summerhouse Trilogy — The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987), The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1988) and The Fly in the Ointment (1989) — has died at age 72. Here are obits from the Telegraph and the Times of London. The Clothes in the Wardrobe was made into a wonderful film, The Summer House, starring Julie Walters, Joan Plowright, and Jeanne Moreau.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Original works at Project Gutenberg (cont'd) ...

I have been alerted to two reviews of one of Steven Sills’s books – An American Papyrus -- at Project Gutenberg.

The first is from the Arkansas Gazette:

The other is from

Sunday, March 06, 2005

A mystery in real time via email ...

I visited one of the sites listed by Jill Walker, The Daughters of Freya ( This is an email mystery by Michael Betcherman and David Diamond. For $7.49 you get a few emails at random every day over a three-week period, which is how long it takes for the mystery to be resolved. You can read the first three emails for free, which is what I have just done. The story has to do with a cult in California (where else?) that thinks free sex is the answer to everything. And they do mean free: Members -- it's an all-female cult, by the way -- are encouraged to have sex with strangers. The parents of one member are less than amused and want the group investigated. That's all I know so far. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Literary email

Jill Walker sends me an annotated list of email narratives that I've found online and it is very interesting. As I told Jill in an email, I don't know if this blog is doing anybody else any good, but I'm sure learning a lot from it.
It also seems people are interested in knowing more about what goes into newspaper book reviewing. So I'll continue with some behind-the-scenes info.
I get, on a good day, maybe 200 emails (not including the deluge of spam). Most are from publicists, some are from authors, others from reviewers, still others from those who would like to review, and some from readers. I actually have hundreds in my inbox that are as yet unread. Almost all of those are from publicists of one sort or another. I pretty much know what they're about and plan to get to them ASAP (of course).
I could spend every day doing nothing but responding to email. Then there's the regular mail. Conservatively estimated, about 500 books come into my office every week. Bins of letters and catalogs as well. But : I have to read a book and review it every week. I have to edit reviews and articles. Go to meetings. I have to figure out what to review and when and who to ask to review it. And so, lamentably, I am always behind. I hope that some of those who have tried to get in touch (I haven't even mentioned the phone) read this and understand that I do eventually look at it all and will almost certainly, eventually, get around to responding in some way, shape , or form.