Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Veronica, Mary Gaitskill, Pantheon Books, 2005, 257 pp

This book gave me symptoms of the flu. I don't mean that as a criticism. The two main characters, Veronica and Allie, are sick. Veronica has AIDS, Allie has Hepatitis C. Told in first person through Allie's eyes, the story of their strange friendship is fraught with the dark side of late 20th century attempts to connect with other human beings.

With unrelenting intensity, Allie relives running away from home as a teenager, hanging out with other disconnected people, doing drugs and engaging in promiscuous sex. She falls into modeling, which is no world for a young woman with identity and self-esteem issues. Finally when she is thoroughly used and broken, she meets Veronica at a temp job in New York City and their unlikely relationship is formed.

The writing is literary in the extreme but finely crafted and evocative in its spareness. Gaitskill takes you deep into the dark night of human loneliness and despair, similar to many of Joyce Carol Oates' novels but without all the rushing gush of words. The physical illnesses are a metaphor for the spiritual malaise, as I believe they are in real life.

I would not recommend this book to anyone who is the least bit emotionally unstable. It is frightening and the sudden bright ray of realization and redemption at the end does nothing to mitigate the murky degradation Gaitskill has put you through for over 200 pages. We all have our moments of depression but Allie's is unending. It made me super grateful for the closeness and love I enjoy with many people in my life but so sad for all the lonely people.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


The Bird's Christmas Carol, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Houghton Miflin Company, 1886, 69 pp

I read this book every year for many years as a child. It never failed to enchant me or make me cry. On this re-reading, after so many years, I began reading in my currently somewhat cynical frame of mind. How could any children be this good? How typical of the rich versus the poor can you get?

The Bird family, Mr and Mrs Bird, three sons, Grandma and Uncle Jack, are thrilled by the new baby, born on Christmas day and named Carol by Mrs Bird as the Christmas anthems peal out from the nearby Church of Our Savior. Carol is loved by all as she grows, but she is not well and becomes weaker every year. Yet she is also filled with love and busies herself with projects for those less fortunate, such as her "Circulating Library" for a local children's hospital.

Carol is fascinated by the large yet poor family living in a coachhouse behind the Birds' home. She wonders, "why do the big families always live in the small houses and the small families in the big houses?" She resolves to give them a wondrous Christmas and even earns some money from a story she wrote, as well as asking her family to buy presents for the Ruggles children instead of for her. The party is a huge success, Carol is fulfilled and dies peacefully in her bed that night. She is only 10 years old.

As nearly as I can determine, I loved this story as a child because, due to my Christian upbringing, I knew I was supposed to be like Jesus, but being strong willed and rebellious, I failed at this daily. Carol on the other hand excelled. In my secret heart, I longed to be as good and loving as Carol.

But the real feat accomplished by Kate Douglas Wiggin is a story that positively glows with the wonder of Christmas as it feels to small children. I felt it again as I finished the story. And I even shed a few tears again all these many years later.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Lonesome Rangers, John Leonard, The New Press, 2002, 318 pp

John Leonard died of lung cancer on November 5, 2008. Until I read the obituary, I had never heard of him, yet he was first a reviewer for and then editor of "The New York Times Book Review" in the late 1960s and the 1970s. He has been called one of the two or three best literary critics in America and his writing described as criticism as performance art. Lonesome Rangers is a collection of his reviews and essays from 1997 to 2001.

I am glad to have made his acquaintance though sorry that he is gone. He claims to have read and reviewed over 13,000 books! That is over 200 books a year and in truth he seems to have read everything plus know all about TV, movies and pop culture. He says he became a reviewer when he realized that most of the books he was reading were better than the ones he was writing. I can so relate.

But his writing is stunning, witty, acerbic and irreverent. Basically he just rants. I now love him and not the least because he loved Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Arthur Koestler. He doesn't seem to care much for Tom Wolfe which is humorous to me because their styles are similar.

I am inspired and heartened that book reviews and literary criticism can be written with such panache, with such entertainment value. John Leonard must have never gotten good marks on book reports. Perhaps he never wrote any. He was a free spirit and ought to be required reading for all book reviewers.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


On January 3, three days after her 90th birthday, my mother had a stroke and landed in the hospital. She suffered some damage to her body and mind but was recovering nicely when on January 11, she had a second stroke and almost did not make it. Thanks to modern medicine she survived and is now in a rehab facility.

On January 12, I flew to Ann Arbor, MI, not knowing if she would still be living when I got here. I am still here, spending many hours a day with her and living at my sister's house. It has been an intense experience and probably changed me in ways I have not realized yet. Finally this week, I can look at the future again though I am still not sure what it holds. My mom is an amazingly strong and practical woman and her total intention is to get well and go home. It is humbling to watch her deal with all that has happened.

I am grateful for modern medicine and the things that doctors and medications can do. But I have to say that even though she was in one of the best hospitals in the United States, if I and my sisters had not been on hand and vigilant, I don't know how she would have survived the experience. I am amazed that individuals without family close at hand make it out of hospitals. We have gotten very good at finding the doctors, nurses and aides who actually care and are professional at what they do. We are nosy, invasive and relentless when it comes to getting information about every aspect of her care and because of that she is doing well. It has been eye-opening in the extreme.

Along with everything else in my life, my reading has suffered. At first I could not even concentrate on more than a page and then there just wasn't time. That is going better now also and right now I am reading a most enjoyable book called What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It is about artists, friendship and between the lines, so much more.

I will return to posting reviews tomorrow and thank you for your patience.