Category Archives: Reviews

” ‘Cause I ain’t nobody’s business.”

I just started taking a four-week MOOC from the University of Edinburgh called “How to Read a Novel.”  I feel I’ve been in a writing lull these days with a couple of semi-stagnant projects unable to engage my full attention, so I thought maybe a short course about reading might trigger some writing muscles (and distract me from the distracting daily political news).

Part of this course involves discussion of the four shortlisted novels for this year’s James Tait Black fiction prize and the first week’s book is C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings.  In reading The New Yorker review to which we received a link, I was struck by this paragraph:

“And why is it that you publish under your initials?” one of Morgan’s characters asks M. J. Deane, a writer with a brief but crucial role in “The Sport of Kings.” Deane responds tartly, “ ’Cause I ain’t nobody’s business.”

In context, that answer is so plausible that it scarcely reads like the curt autobiographical nod it is. C. E. Morgan, whose full name is Catherine Elaine, has made it her business to be nobody’s business. She was born in Cincinnati and lives in Kentucky. She studied English and voice at Berea College, a tuition-free school in Appalachia for the academically talented but economically strapped, and has a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She has declined to make public almost anything else about her life…

I haven’t been asked why I used “R.D.” rather than “Rick” or “Richard” or “Richard Dietrich” on my last novel, but if anyone asks, I like “because I ain’t nobody’s business” as a succinct response. I’ve always preferred writers who don’t let their personal biographies get in the way of the books.



Go by John Clellon Holmes

GoGo by John Clellon Holmes is a book I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf since picking up a copy of the 1977 hardcover reprint edition at the Strand Bookstore in ’78 or ’79.  I didn’t read it right away because I guess I thought is was just “lesser” Kerouac rather than a novel that provided a totally new viewpoint of the Beat Generation immortals. Kerouac (Gene Pasternak) and Neal Cassady (Hart Kennedy) disappear for sections on their road trips; we don’t see them on the road and on the west coast,  but they are always in the conversation and they become major characters when they return to Manhattan where Holmes (Paul Hobbes) and Allen Ginsberg (David Stofsky) and others are waiting for them.

Go, which was published in 1952 before On the Road and is famously the first book to use the term “Beat Generation,” is a glossary of other slang from the period as well. “Go!” itself is Hart Kennedy’s catchphrase and in another place Hobbes mansplains at length the meaning of the new term “Cool” to a young romantic interest; Hobbes has a pedantic side that would mansplain “mansplaining” to a young romantic interest if he were writing a roman à clef about 2015 New York rather than late forties  New York — a city where young men and women are smoking marijuana and listening to bebop in wild parties and older New Yorkers are still seen on the street in bowlers and spats.

Kathryn Hobbes, Paul’s wife, is a strong character throughout the book (as are more of the women than in a typical Kerouac novel), and she puts the Beat Generation in its place when she says to her husband about the legendary free-spirit Hart Kennedy, who is smoking pot, sleeping late, and chasing other women in New York while his travelling companion Dinah (LuAnne Henderson) is supporting him: “Sure,” Kathryn says, “He doesn’t want to lose her salary. Oh, he cares about those things, no matter what he says! But does he get a job? It’s been two weeks and I’ll bet he hasn’t even been looking. That’s the beat generation for you.”

I’d wholeheartedly recommend Holmes’ novel to anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the Beats.  It’s as if Jack and Neal had a sane friend who was staying home, taking notes, and willing to face a few of the hard truths they (and many of us, their readers) were trying hard and running fast to avoid.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As in IQ84, a single piece of music plays a repeating role throughout the book; this time it’s Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays’ rather than Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Listening to that short piano piece at a key moment late (page 322) in his pilgrimage, this paragraph appears:

“And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”

Once again, I was immediately hooked by the music behind Murakami’s deceptively simple prose. I highly recommend Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I also want to say that (though I’m sure I would have also loved this book on an e-reader) the size, look, and feel of this physical Chip Kidd-designed hardcover added to the experience of following Tsukuru Tazaki on his journey. Everything from the railway maps to the significant colors used on the endsheets and the treatment of the page numbers contributed greatly to the pleasure of reading.

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“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”

Gilligan's Wake: A NovelGilligan’s Wake: A Novel by Tom Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was just reminded of this novel by a friend who posted that today (9/26/2014) is the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ so I dug into Amazon where I see that my 1/31/2003 review of ‘Gilligan’s Wake’ – probably the first Amazon review I wrote – was featured. Here it is:

(Five Stars) Joycean ride for nondubliners

I just finished this guilty pleasure on the train to work this morning. I read and enjoy a lot of books, but I never feel the need to comment immediately to the Amazonian public about them. This is one that I’d hate to see slip quietly below the radar in the flood of new novels.
It’s not just a pop culture pastiche I’ve seen it described as; it’s a very heartfelt picture of the world for those of us who grew up in the second half of the American century. If you’ve ever read Ulysses wishing that you had more firsthand experience with the streets of 1904 Dublin, or tried to read Finnegans Wake wishing that you had a better working knowledge of Norwegian puns, this is the book for you (assuming of course, you owned a TV, were aware of current events and maybe read some T.S. Eliot and had a few years of French).
Here’s proof once again that St. James of Dublin (Trieste, Paris and Zurich) was not a dead end for literature, but a new beginning.

Now I want to read it again.

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The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBIThe Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tale of the FBI office burglary itself deserves five stars and it deserves to be known by every American. The loss of a star comes from some loss of focus as the book spends a few more pages than necessary on the current decade’s familiar intelligence history and abuses since 9/11 (but even if you skim some of the later chapters, please read the acknowledgments for the personal, almost accidental, story of two of the burglars revealing their identities to the author).
The world of 1971 is well rendered and the brave people who burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania to expose J. Edgar Hoover’s crimes are treated sympathetically. How much longer would the FBI have been able to deny their abuses if not for the documents stolen by these eight ordinary people, sent to Betty Medsger at The Washington Post, and published by the Post over the objections of the Nixon Administration? The fact that none of the burglars were ever caught by the FBI despite J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with finding them is astonishing. I was personally struck by the connections with Catholic peace movement of the Berrigans and with Philadelphia Resistance (a group I was at the fringes of in high school) and the members who overlapped with the Camden 28. That draft board break-in (and the amazing trial and verdict that followed) deserves a book of its own, but Betty Medsger does a great job of placing the Camden 28 story in context here. I hadn’t thought of that group of priests and lay people in years, but I remember going to benefits for them, including one starring George Carlin. I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I don’t think my recommendation is too highly colored by the fact that the story has some resonances from my youth; it’s an amazing and overlooked event in our recent national history, and a personal story of what ordinary people can do in extraordinary times.

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From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the PresentFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished reading this today, but I wish I had stopped about a hundred pages before the end. The first 700 pages have a historian’s distance and breadth and I found the chapters on the 1500s and 1600s especially fascinating. There was a heavy Western European slant, but that’s right in the subtitle and I was expecting that. What I wasn’t expecting was that the history of the years between 1945 and 1995 read like a curmudgeon’s “oh, these kids today” rant with a very narrow focus on the concerns and conflicts in late-20th-century American academia. If the book had ended when Jacques Barzun was a young boy in France listening to the German guns at the beginning of World War I, I would have had no problem giving this book five stars. The last hundred pages not only distract from those early pages, but they put some of the value judgments in those earlier pages in doubt.

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Reading Thoreau Again

WaldenWalden by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that repays rereading, especially if it has been more than 40 years between readings.
Of course there are a thousand memorable and very quotable lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; “…beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”; “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them”; and, finally, “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” When I read Walden in high school, I’m sure I concentrated on finding these veins of gold among what I perceived to be dross, but there are some beautifully written and very closely observed nature studies throughout the book. The detailed descriptions of pond ice in all its variations are priceless. I enjoyed taking my time this time and reading this classic at the slow pace it deserves.

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