Review: “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel

My review ran in The Seattle Times Jan. 17, 2014:

 

Scott Stossel’s new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of that word. “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” (Knopf, 400 pp., $27.95) is both conspicuous and superior within its genre. Stossel, who also wrote a fine biography of Sargent Shriver, brings his dogged fact-digging skills to this work, which is peppered with humor and humility, remarkably balanced — and generous to the point of philanthropy with his deeply personal, hard-won knowledge.

Plus, the man is a lovely writer.

If I sound surprised, I am. So many mainstream books on mental health insist on leading the reader into one revival meeting or another — where Big Pharma is a pill-pushing Satan or the best lifeguard on the beach; where the ubiquitous reference guide, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5 came out in 2013), is a helpful tool or an insidious guide that unnecessarily labels thousands more people as mentally ill.

Stossel, in contrast, answers questions about the fitness of various diagnostics and treatments with the only truth: It depends.

 

See the rest of the review on the Seattle Times Books page.

Review: David Laskin: The Family, Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century”

Seattle writer David Laskin wrote a strong book, using his search for knowledge of his own family to paint vivid history of Jews across the world. My review ran in The Seattle Times on Dec. 12, 2013:

“The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century” by David Laskin (Viking, 400 pp)

Somewhere in the hallways of David Laskin’s publisher, there must be a sturdy soul whose editorial judgment helped ensure that this talented writer could tell his family’s story in plenteous detail. Many publishers would be more likely to winnow the manuscript, ending up with a shorter book that fit more neatly on one side or the other of the history/memoir divide.

Fortunately for us, that did not happen here. Laskin has a broad canvas on which to depict the interwoven stories of a far-flung Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States, from the turn of the 20th century forward. It takes some pages to get acclimated to the many players in this drama (a family tree and wonderful photos help), but once readers are fully grounded, they can happily disappear into the book.

See the rest of review on the Seattle Times Books page online.

 

 

Review: “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” by Jill Lepore

“Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 464 pp)

My review ran on the Books page of the Seattle Times on October 5, 2013:

Historian Jill Lepore is a professional genre buster. Or, at least a genre blur-er. She’s a very popular Harvard professor who started her career in those ivy-covered towers as a temp secretary. She’s written several respected books that take on conventional interpretations of war, language and American history — apparently without alienating those peers who cling to the dusty path. She’s an essayist for The New Yorker; a critic, creator and challenger.

Now in “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” she brings her various skills and quirks together to tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister, and in so doing depicts the famous brother and their times in fresh, sharp colors. This book is a … well, what? A picaresque biography? A dual-ficto-bio? We may need to employ a new term here.

See the rest of review on the Seattle Times website.

 

Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Author Reza Aslan has been getting a lot of press, largely because of a Fox News “interview” displaying one of those moronic performances for which the network is known. (I won’t link to it. Google if you feel the need.)

I reviewed his new book for The Seattle Times:

A scholar who sets out to put the record straight on Jesus is an anomalous creature, eager (perhaps even driven) to share diligent research and original conclusions with the very people most likely to be rattled by his findings.

“Zealot” by Reza Aslan is a fascinating book, and no doubt will be chosen by many a well-meaning and hurried gift-giver who imagines a devout Christian recipient will be delighted. Be advised, dear reader, Sunday school this isn’t. Yet Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.

For the whole review, click here.

 

 

Review: Ellis and his “Revolutionary Summer”

I was able to review this book for The Seattle Times. If you know someone who is wild about early American history, jot down this title for use during frantic holiday shopping.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis

The best thing about Joseph Ellis’ vast writings on Early America is his ability to construct unvarnished and original accounts, clear away myth and yet leave the reader with a sense of the color, irony, humor and — dare I say it? — the great good luck present throughout our country’s history.

More than once I’ve had the thought that his award-winning books should be issued to every family with fiercely opposed politics and loyalties, with instructions to read one or more of them immediately prior to Thanksgiving dinner. Just imagine it: intelligent arguments about the character of our nation.

His latest, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence,” is not the fully transporting sort of book, as was his “American Sphinx” on Thomas Jefferson. And it won’t inspire people to become public servants or professors, as I believe his works on John Adams et. al. can actually do.

Yet it is an absorbing read and is aptly named, for it takes a fresh view — as his subtitle puts it — of the birth of American independence.

It requires a kind of donnish confidence to focus on the buildup to a great change, and the University of Massachusetts professor shoves off with a characteristically good one-liner at the start: “By the spring of 1776, British and American troops had been killing each other at a robust rate for a full year.”

 

Read the rest of the review in The Seattle Times by clicking here.

 

 

Review: “Counter Clockwise” by Lauren Kessler

My review of this book ran in The Seattle Times:

“Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging”

by Lauren Kessler

Rodale, 223 pp., $24.99

I have a rotten gene pool — the family tree is a bonsai. Whatever my predecessors lacked in health, they made up for in drama: fatal tumbles down stairs or whacks on the head during polo matches, all before cancer, diabetes or dementia could claim them.

With my genetic loading, I am absurdly pleased each time I renew my magazine subscriptions. Hence, I am not too worried about aging.

So I turned with some curiosity to Lauren Kessler’s new book, “Counter Clockwise,” in which she plumbs the depths of her own valiant battle to hold back the forces of time. What, I wondered, could she add to our society’s endless discussion of age-retardant strategies? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Review: “The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff” by Bartley

I reviewed this for The Seattle Times. Bartley’s book has been nominated for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

“The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Nicolls, Jr.” by Nancy Bartley (Univ of WA Press)

It’s the stuff of movies: An abused, ragged 12-year-old boy shoots and kills a sheriff in a small, poor Depression-era town in southeastern Washington state. He is sent to prison for life. Advocates work tirelessly to free him, jailers endeavor to protect him, and he grows to intelligent manhood behind bars.

In the hands of Nancy Bartley, a staff writer for The Seattle Times, the story of Herbert Niccolls, Jr. is told with perspicacious detail borne of careful research.

It’s a safe wager that every daily newspaper reporter comes across a story that cries out to be turned into a book. For the few who actually do so, many pitfalls lurk. The reporting often goes on for years, making the author reluctant to part with a single hard-won fact. The writing itself can suffer from the narrative albatross of attribution — that lifetime habit of inserting “police said” after each and every fact.

For the rest of the review, click here.

 

She surfaces…with a do-not-miss recommendation.

I have been AWOL on this blog for a long time. I’m welcoming myself back with this tip:

This column in The New York Times is beautifully written. Under the bluntly worded headline of “You Are Going to Die,” Tim Kreider writes about life in a way that will resonate with people of all ages. He is funny without being flip, sober without gloom, hopeful and worried at the same time. A lovely accomplishment.

Click here and enjoy.

Review of Richard Russo’s “Elsewhere.”

Longtime readers of Russo’s fiction will recognize the woman at the center of this memoir. His mother, Jean Russo, and his childhood with her have fueled most of his novels.

My review in The Seattle Times begins this way:

Richard Russo has mined his childhood with enormous energy, humor and craftsmanship. He’s populated most of his stories and novels (one, “Empire Falls,” a Pulitzer Prize winner) with wonderfully believable characters found in fading mill towns nestled in upper New York State.

These towns, once vibrant, clattering, stinking centers where animal hides were turned into famously excellent gloves and other leather goods, were dying by the 1950s when Russo was growing up just north of the Adirondacks foothills. His hometown was Gloversville, in what was later labeled the Central Leatherstocking District — two names so simultaneously sad and absurd that Russo might have made them up . (A place proudly named after an extinct industry not once, but twice, is the sort of stuff Russo appreciates.)

 

Read the rest here.

All the News That Fits. In this blog, anyway.

The Sunday New York Times today (June 10, 2012) has some rich rewards within its pages.

A very well-written feature on a group of elderly women in a public-housing apartment building in New York City. They’ve become friends, rallying around one who lost her daughter to a stabbing attack. What could have been a brief or shallow look at a bunch of old gals who bring each other coffee is instead a thoughtful and evocative essay on late-in-life friendship. Reporter John Leland should be proud…as should the headline writer who came up with “The Neighbors Who Don’t Knock.”

–The kindness in that piece may be counteracted by the one headlined “Forced to Early Social Security, Unemployed Pay a Steep Price.” I’m saving that one to read later. No need to ruin the mood immediately. (Plus, I know several people who are taking their Social Security early, so I can predict some of the findings.)

The centerpiece on A-1, “Risky Rise of the Good Grade Pill,” about kids snorting their way to longer attention spans is a major (pardon the pun) downer. The problem is enormous. Adderall, Ritalin and other drugs  prescribed to treat ADHD and other conditions are swallowed or crushed and snorted by students from all walks of life to allow for high energy and “tunnel” concentration that is perfect for taking college boards and other tests. With abuse, the resulting damage to health (of both body and mind) is invariably serious. Most sobering is the observation that many kids taking the drugs are unaware that the pills are amphetamines, and that sharing them with others can be the same as selling them, which is a felony. The story is well reported and well written. Reporter Alan Schwartz did a ton of legwork for this one. Among the take-aways for me: (1) There is no mystery as to why so few sources would let their names be used, but watch as Big Pharma manufacturers use the lack of conventional attribution as they refute the size of the problem. (2) I would have been popping these things with both hands if they’d been available when I was in high school.

–The impressive Sunday magazine cover story by Amos Kamil on abuse in the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York is also very well done. But, for God’s sake — I’m beginning to wonder how any kids manage to escape such predators.  I was raised to keep a weather eye out for dangerous guys (they were always “guys”) presumably prison escapees who waited in the bushes on the route home from school. What do you tell a kid now? Watch our for priests, teachers, coaches, babysitters, doctors, Scout leaders and camp counselors? No wonder so many kids are snorting their ‘scripts. You need energy and powerful focus to dodge all these dirtbags.

Finally, there’s the Q&A with author John Irving in the Book Review. When asked which famous author he’d like to meet, he replies that he prefers reading writers to meeting them. Excellent answer.

 

 

 

Review: “In The Kingdom of Men” by Kim Barnes

This is a very good novel just out by Kim Barnes. The top of my review in The Seattle Times:

In the 1960s, the Arabian American Oil Company, the big boy in the international oil business, created gated compounds for its American workers in Saudi Arabia, or more accurately, for the workers’ wives and families whose husbands went off to work on oil rigs.

A portrait of life inside the gates in 1967, drawn with skill and filled with evocative period detail by novelist Kim Barnes, depicts a sort of Saudi Barbie Dream House. The narrator is young bride Virginia “Gin” McPhee, a transplanted Okie and heroine in the enticing tradition of plucky outsiders who find themselves in a new society with complex social rules and secrets.

For the rest, click here.

Good books: A black widow, a Dodge City doc and deadly games.

My escapist reading for the past couple of weeks covered a lot of ground–the old West, the new Midwest, the future North America and modern-day Manhattan. I grabbed two at the library based on my scientific method of good cover, good summary, an author not known to me, and enough pages to keep the entertainment coming for several days. The third is a mega-hit young adult book I could not resist any longer.

“Criminal Seduction” by Darian North (Dutton, 1993; Signet 1994) is a juicy thriller built around a murder case, complete with a mysterious widow charged with killing her husband, a well-known and troubled artist. The narrator is Owen Byrne, a Kansas cowboy-turned-author who is writing his first true-crime book about the case. I’m a sucker for a good story about a struggling writer. This one has enough plot twists and turns to keep even jaded mystery/thriller readers hooked. It’s not easy to segue from courtroom narrative to sex scenes, but North manages quite nicely.

 

“Doc” (Random House, 2011) was a surprise.  Author Mary Doria Russell manages to mix the myth and generous servings of true history about Dodge City in the 1870s together to make the legendary Doc Holliday come to life. Her humor is dry and clever — if you loved the irreverent HBO series Deadwood, this book is for you. Russell is a talented writer across genres, with a gift for focusing on unlikely friendships and love affairs as a means of understanding her characters. Doc’s liaison with a whore who converses with him in Latin is most memorable.

Other books by North and Russell are on my to-get list now. Is there anything better than discovering an enjoyable author with other books to her/his credit?

The third book is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a fantasy set in the future, a genre I used to rate right below appliance manuals. Author Kevin Brockmeier (“The Illumination”) helped me realize the idiocy of this bias, so I finally picked up “The Hunger Games.” The book is inspired by Greek myth, reality TV and bleak war news, according to interviews with Collins, a former TV writer. The story is told from the point of view of Katness Everdeen, a tough teenage girl who is the hunter-gatherer for her fatherless family, and who must go off to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games. Collins manages to indict today’s political and corporate villains without preaching, and throws in enough suspense and survival-by-wits to keep the reader riveted. Small wonder that two more books and a motion picture have popped up.

Buy all at Powell’s — best bookstore in America.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Carole King weaves yet another Tapestry.

I was fortunate to be able to review Carole King’s new autobio for The Seattle Times:

 

The title of Carole King’s autobiography is a good fit for the humble, glamour-free portrait she paints of her seven decades. It’s also a stroke of marketing genius.

“(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” was the megahit King and her first husband and longtime collaborator Gerry Goffin wrote for Aretha Franklin in 1967 that’s been sung by countless rockers, rappers, divas and secret shower-

soloists. It is also likely the best-known track on King’s 1971 smash album “Tapestry,” which has sold upward of 25 million copies. Now those of us who wore out our record players listening to it are a publisher’s dream demographic: young enough to still have rock ‘n’ roll in our heads, old enough to pay full price for a hardcover book without feeling ripped off.

 

For the rest of the review, click here.

 

Tiny Book Reviews: Women at war and the men who loved them.

It’s been months since I blanketed readers with lists of obscure and bestselling books of interest.

Consider these for a start:

The best novel set in the civil rights era that I have read (and I’ve read as many as I can get my hands on) is Magic Time by Doug Marlette (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). I was crushed to discover that the author has since passed away. Marlette wrote a historically accurate novel with nearly perfect pitch. Protagonist Carter Ransom, a newspaper columnist back home in the deep South after years away, is as wounded and honorable as the homeland he revisits.

Burial for a King : Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the week that transformed Atlanta and rocked the nation, by Rebecca Burns (Scribner, 2011) is a surprise: Fresh reporting and perspective on a tragedy that is one of the most written-about events in American history. By focusing tightly on the week of King’s funeral, and capturing moments of the extraordinary strength of Coretta Scott King, Burns adds a valuable work to the canon.

With a selfish, spirited heroine of the Scarlett O’Hara variety, The Linen Queen, by Patricia Falvey (Center Street, 2011) is set in a Northern Ireland village during World War II.  There’s a love triangle at the center of this good novel, but the small domestic details of the life of a small-village millworker is the best stuff.

Reading Away,  by Amy Bloom (Random House, 2007) made me realize how many more picaresque novels are about men versus women. And what a shame that is. Bloom is a fabulous writer and her heroine, Lillian Leyb, is brave, foolish and memorable as she arrives in America in 1924. When Lillian learns the infant daughter she left for dead after a pogrom is alive, she vows to return to Russia and find the child.  The characters who help and hinder her are brilliantly drawn. Bloom employs a very finely wrought back-and-forth-in-time style that every fiction writer should study.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2010) has a Sophie’s Choice quality–a painful war story with a fierce female survivor at its center; unfolding events from which we cannot avert our eyes, and which stay lodged in the brain for weeks. Set first in the Korean War era, it seems especially poignant to read of such spoils of war today, with US military involvement on more than one front. Chang-rae Lee is already established as a powerhouse and this book keeps that reputation intact.

If you, like me, missed the coda to Armisted Maupin’s wonderful Tales of the City characters, don’t wait any longer. Go get Michael Tolliver Lives, (HarperCollins, 2007) and remember what it was that made the Maupin novels so engrossing the first time around. Almost 20 years after Maupin brought gay, lesbian and transgender characters to the mainstream, he revisits the veterans of those distant days. This isn’t just a book for nostalgic old farts; if  the whole series is new to you, start at the beginning with Tales of the City.

(Note: The links to these books are from Powell’s, Portland’s famous independent bookstore, arguably the best in the country. Sometimes a link disappears when the particular copy I’ve bookmarked is a used one that has been sold. If you get a “not found” message, simply search for the title again on the Powell’s home page. They never run out of books.)

 

 

 

Joan Leegant’s novel: “Wherever You Go”

I had the good fortune to read an advance copy of Joan Leegant’s novel Wherever You Go, some months ago.  Leegant is a brainy, multi-degreed writer and teacher (Harvard undergrad; then law school and on to an MFA) who moves easily between Boston and Tel Aviv.

The book, published in 2010 by W.W. Norton, is getting good press–and among her stops, Leegant will appear in Portland in the spring. The review in The New York Times didn’t resonate for me on this one, but one paragraph had a good summary:

The book is an indictment of certain anemic corners of the modern American Jewish experience — spiritually sapped by bourgeois values, rote religious observance, Holocaust fatigue and jingoistic ethnic pride — and an exploration of the radicalism, religious and political, into which some searching people flee.

What wasn’t emphasized was the sympathy and fairness with which all those corners are portrayed, or Leegant’s gift for nailing down the nature of our imperfect introspection into matters religious and cultural. This slippery process has everything to do with the generally inept coverage of “Jewish issues” by mainstream media. When the interviewees are not articulate about their own Jewishness or view of Israel, the interviewers aren’t either.

I thought Steve Pollak, writing for Jewish Literary Review, did a good job on his review of Leegant’s book. And, for a better sense of Leegant and her writing process, click here for some video.

Huck Finn would be in juvy lock-up today.

It’s that time again. Another round of the predictable outcry in a school district over Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

(A good opinion piece about it by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, here.)

The argument is always the same: Twain’s use (a zillion times) of the word “nigger” is insulting and racist, and not appropriate for discussion by students in this enlightened time. His novels should be banned–or worse–rewritten to remove the offensive words.

This fight always leaves me very cranky.

First, because I have always secretly disliked the novels of Mark Twain, which is like hating puppies. I’ve made a vow to try them again this year, just in case my literary tastes have matured. So, stay tuned on that.

Second: Why is it that the opponents to Twain’s writing are almost always such obvious misfits? Unpopular professors seeking to make a name for themselves; wacky PTA presidents, pastors of some church way, way off the mainline.

I’ve always wondered why Twain gets picketed and Louisa May Alcott doesn’t. God knows there is more truth in his view than hers…what family is as happy as the March clan? As for bad influences: Clearly Jo was a lesbian who marries that old guy just to get out of the house. And what about Beth’s mysterious death? Oh, and P.S., maybe Daddy March ought to get a real job, hmmmm?

For months now I’ve been working on a project that has me immersed in reading about our sinful history of slavery; of lynching, the civil rights movement and, more recently, Vietnam. Erasing this hateful word from literature doesn’t erase that history. It just makes it a bit easier to pretend it didn’t happen.

Here’s what I know for sure: We can’t learn and change without reading and seeing the stuff of the past. And if we don’t teach kids the nuance and import of context, they are royally screwed. Left without one of the most important tools for making decisions and forming personal ethics.

Here’s an idea: You educators, parents and others who fear that the language of Twain will embarrass or disrespect or corrupt our youth — why don’t you go to work on a study guide that runs through the various points of view on the matter. Tell us how and why it became unacceptable to call a grown African American man, “boy.” Explain why it took so long for the big newspapers to use Mr. or Mrs. or Miss when referring to black people–just as they did when writing about white folks. Trace the timing and thought behind the migration from “colored” to “negro” to “Negro” to “black” to “Black” to “Afro-American” to “African American” to a person of color.

Sanitizing language is silly. It’s a teaching moment, so get on with it.

In 100 years someone will be agitating to ban your study guide. I promise.