Friday, August 24, 2007

The Best of I.F. Stone

Before blogging was even imagined, there was I. F. (Izzy) Stone, an independent journalist. I read about him in an article that my father gave me and had to get the new book that contains his essays. Izzy Stone was a journalist who started a four page weekly newspaper. He'd hunt though government documents finding the gems that writers at the big papers missed. He knew that Washington was full of overlooked stories.

He started the Weekly in the 1950's and by the time he retired in the 1970's he had a readership of 15,000. A progressive thinker, Stone clearly tries to keep us awake and on the look out for erosion of the Bill of Rights. (See how timely he is.)

This book contains an introduction by one of his researcher interns followed by sections with essays on the First Amendment, WWII, the Cold War, racism, Isreal, the Vietnam War and Heroes and Others. His scrutiny of facts and outsider perspective make for interesting reading. For example, he wasn't so impressed with Martin Luther King, Jr's. I Have a Dream speech (he thought it sacchrine - he did believe in King's aims) as he was with a Socialist Party meeting that weekend where A.Philip Randolph called for economic justice for all. Reading Stone was an interesting look at recent history from a vantage point I hadn't seen. He's detailed, insightful, and a master of rhetorical style.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Seize the Day

How can I review a book by Saul Bellow or any Nobel Laureate for that matter? I'm so humbled by all his writing.

Seize the Day was terrific and such a joy to read from page one. It's the story of Wilkie who's doomed for financial failure and he's trying to deal with his aloof, superior father. The writing is superb, but then Bellow's one of my favorite writers. I confess my bias. One thing I love is the way Bellow writes about the main characters inner thoughts. He really nails what someone's thinking as one listens to a fool or a jerk. He gets the relationships we have and can't get out of with people who are so annoying or weird.

While I like this book, I don't think it's the first Bellow book I'd suggest someone read. I'd start with The Adventures of Augie March, which is longer, but so funny and wild.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

It took me two readings to really appreciate the charms of Wicked.

On the first reading, Son of a Witch does not match the mastery of Wicked.

Son of a Witch picks up the story of Elphaba's son, Liir, although Maguire expends an annoying amount of energy and verbiage trying to convince the reader that this fact is in question.

The novel picks up approximately 10 years after the death (?) of Elphaba and fills in the intervening years through flashback. A recurring theme throughout the book is the question of whether "Elphaba Lives." Given that I had just seen Wicked - The Musical, I was amenable to the idea that Elphaba was in fact alive.

The book was uneven and choppy. It held my interest in spite of itself, mostly due to my curiosity as opposed to any intrinsic artistry. Maguire's imagination still impresses but his storytelling disappoints.

I finished the book with a feeling of inconclusiveness. I suspected yet another sequel and was not surprised to learn that in October of 2006, Maguire announced that he was working on a third book based in Oz.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wicked - The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Unbelievably epic and rich in detail.

I first read Wicked a few years ago and having just seen Wicked - The Musical, decided to re-read it.

I'm amazed at how much I had forgotten.

I remembered my surprise upon reading it the first time at how political Elphaba's life was but so much had escaped me.

As is his wont, Gregory Maguire takes a key but hardly central character from the Wizard of Oz and fleshes out her backstory with stunning imagination. He hones in on and explores the question of the Wicked Witch of the West's essential wickedness.

It's significant that the subtitle of the book is The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and the subtitle of the musical is The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. The fundamental theme of the musical is friendship and the musical really does not even touch the issue of evil. The fundamental question in the book is the question of the nature of evil and time and again, throughout the book, Maguire returns to this theme.

In the Grimmerie, the keepsake companion book to the musical, Maguire notes that he came away from the Wizard of Oz wondering why the Wicked Witch of the West was wicked and why it was necessary for Dorothy to kill her. Wanting to write a book exploring the nature of evil, Maguire saw Elphaba as an ideal vehicle.

Oftentimes, when I'm reading a book for the first time, I'm reading for plot and much of the detail gets lost. Because Wicked is so rich and so deep, it's amazing to read it a second time and realize how much is really there.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Cadogan's Provence

Cadogan has become my new favorite travel guide. Beth, my former boss, recommended the title and suggested I visit Provence while in France. This guide's strength is the commentary which is often funny and provides just the right amount and kind of facts. Here's a sample:
On Arles
Like Nîmes, Arles has enought intact antiquities to call itself the "Rome of France"; unlike Nîmes it lingered in the post-Roman limelight for another thousand years, producing enough saints for every month on the calendar. . . . Henry James wrote "As a city Arles quite misses its effect in every way: and if it is a charming place, as I think it is, I can hardly tell the reason why." Modern Arles, sitting amidst its ruins, is still somehow charming, in spite of a general scruffiness that seems more intentional than natural.
By the way I really like Arles. It was easy to get around and there was plenty of charm and good food for three days.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

By Bread Alone

Who decided to publish this vapid book? I guess whoever did agrees with Mencken that "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." Since this Harlequin romance-like trash was first published in the U.K. I guess the same can be said of the Brits.

Sarah-Kate Lynch throws together a predictable story about Esme who I guess is supposed to resemble Bridget Jones if she were married. Esme is nursing some tragic hurt that is only hinted at up to page 225, when I abandoned this read since life is just too short. (A friend lent me this novel because it's got a French theme. She did warn me that the beginning was cheesy. I'd say the middle is and I predict the ending is as well.)

Basically, Esme is haunted by a mysterious sorrow (I think she had a child die) and by "the one who got away" even though that guy was obviously a loser. We all suffer heartache in our teens or 20s and if we live a half way decent life by our mid-30's we're over it, way over it. Esme, get a life.

Since I have a life, I dropped this dreck unwilling to believe that it could improve.

French By Heart

Rebecca Ramsey chronicles her family's experiences living in a small town in France with such wit. She has three children, Sarah, Ben (who often reminds his parents in the beginning that "nobody asked me if I wanted to move to France" and baby Sam. It was interesting to see how they deal with French school, social life, haircuts, language problems, the medical system, and especially their neighbor, Madame Maillet, who one might say had some boundary issues. (However, I bet every French neighborhood has a Madame Maillet.)

Ramsey is humorous, perceptive and fair. She laughs at herself as much as at anyone else.