Wednesday, December 30, 2020

William Shakespeare and Six Bits of Bardic Fun


Everyone needs lists to usher in the New Year. I will stick to optimism and give you my choice of six books you could gift to a theatre enthusiast or read yourself during the upcoming winter.  They are entertaining mysteries of a sort and all come with a connection to Shakespeare. Look on the internet for available copies.  

1) Let’s start with an all time absolute classic. Read or give a friend a copy of Josephine Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time.  It will suck you into “Richard III” as an illness confined detective seeks to solve the mystery of the murder of the Young Princes right from his hospital bed.

2) If you have a soft spot in your heart for the Bard’s birthplace, another classic that might make a good read or gift is Martha Grimes’ 1984 The Dirty Duck.  It has Superintendent Richard Jury discovering that Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage is not the only place where murder is committed.  Only the truly initiated will know what the title refers to.

3) Do you or your recipient prefer stories with a bit more color, adventure and romance?  Try a different take on “Shakespeare In Love” with Faye Kellerman’s 1989 (paper 2002)  The Quality of Mercy.  It immerses you in the tale of a young Jewish girl out and about in Elizabethan England who meets up with none other than William S. himself. Plenty of skullduggery and intrigue, but not a quick read at over 500 pages. Save it for a winter fireside rather than a sunny summer beach.

4) Is there a gift target or do you have a fondness for the Eastern United States? That might take you in the direction of Shakespeare with a New Haven twist. William Martin’s 2003 Harvard Yard is yet another story of an undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript.  The cachet comes here from the fact that it  is buried in the bowels of our most eminent university’s library.  It covers Harvard’s history all the way from old John’s long ago journey from Bankside right up to the 1960’s. 

5)  If you like things a bit off beat or have friends with the same inclination here is the choice for you. It is hard to classify award winning novelist Margaret Atwood’s 2020 somewhat scary and weird  Hag-Seed. What you get here is a modern story about a vengeance driven stage director with a similarity to Prospero. His name is Felix  and he is the star attraction at a major Canadian Theatre Festival (Think Stratford).  He is suddenly victimized and fired by jealous and ambitious members of his governing board just as he is planning a new and revolutionary production of The Tempest. He spends several years after his dismissal as a hermit while carrying on a ghostly alliance with the imaginary presence of his own dead daughter who just happens to be named Miranda. Finally there comes an opportunity to lead an experimental theatre program in a prison (think a remote island).  He is successful in this endeavor and makes a decision to re-mount the production of The Tempest he had been working on when he was deposed all those years ago. He will use the convicts for most of the roles, but recruits the actress who he had wanted to cast in that production to play Miranda. A marvelous coincidence puts his old enemies within reach (think a shipwreck) and rekindles his thirst for revenge. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s The Tempest is not required, but it does help deepen the strangeness and the magic.  

6) “Avast all ye theatre lubbers!”   My favorite  recent Shakespeare offering is a rip roaring  historical thriller from 2018 titled The Spy of Venice  by Benet Brandreth.  It is raucous, romantic, and swashbuckling  while simultaneously projecting an inventive theory about Will’s famous “lost years.” It hangs on the scholarly peg that if thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays have Italian settings, he must have spent time in Italy.  I really loved this book, so let me give you a more thorough  introduction.

 It is 1585 and Shakespeare has fled Stratford and headed to London where he is eking out a   scant living by holding horses at James Burbage’s “The Theatre.” There he falls in with Nick Oldcastle a Falstaff like company manager, who may hark back to an earlier play titled Sir John Oldcastle and forward to a character not yet given life on the stage by the Bard. Two other actors work with Oldcastle. One is an experienced player named John Hemmings (you may have heard that name before) and the other is a boy named Arthur who plays women’s parts. This quartet is recruited by the English Ambassador to Venice to join a delegation he is leading to bring important political communiqués from Queen Elizabeth to the Doge.

 And thus hangs the tale.  Little do the players realize the treacherous violence that will greet them in Venice.  Amid the masked balls, poetry contests, magnificent art, and alluring women, the affairs of state are being practiced  murderously by spies of all nations up to and even including the Vatican.  Shakespeare remains a  budding wordsmith, but Brandreth  gives him the élan and fighting spirit of  a musketeer.  Knives flash, swords are drawn, and chases careen down narrow alleys and over Venetian bridges. It is a Will with a way you might not have imagined before.  

Brandreth  writes with comic poise and delicious irony.  The arch villain of the piece is named Prospero not Iago. We get cameos from Anne Hathaway, Robert Greene, and the  painter Tintoretto among others. It is the author’s  first novel though he is already a barrister, a performer, and perhaps most importantly the “rhetoric coach” for the RSC. That means he knows his Shakespeare up down and sideways and references to the plays that will someday spill out of the Bard’s fertile mind are both clever and numerous.  He even manages at one point to give us a character who exits rapidly “pursued by a bear.”  Anyone who enjoys lively  historical fiction will get a kick out of this book. Anyone with a theatrical interest will find it a delicious treat.  Brandreth’s second novel is already available in Britain and is titled The Assassin of Verona.  My guess is that it may cover the actor’s homebound trip back from Venice to London and perhaps some R and J allusions or two.  Look for it!

As you wait for a return to creating or watching live theatre, may you or a friend get a bit pleasure from  some of these Shakespearean  Bon Bons.


Dr. Jim De Young  12/29/2020


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Book Review--SAVING FREEDOM: Truman, The Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization by Joe Scarborough


One might expect that a book by MSNBC morning anchor Joe Scarborough would be smoking with partisan political  rhetoric.   Surprisingly, what rises off the page is a short, quite evenhanded review of  the presidency of Harry Truman.  Although I was on the planet in the immediate post WWII era, I was more interested in cub scouts and baseball at the time rather than politics.  Since my wife is of the same relative age, we did decide to put in a reserve for the book at our local library in order to fill in our history gap.  

Vice President Truman inherited the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and  quickly found out that Roosevelt,  in spite of his precarious health,  had not  seen fit to share much of anything with him--much less the existence of the Manhattan Project. So right from the get go Truman was faced with a series of war related foreign and domestic problems that all needed fixing or at least decisions made quickly.   Scarborough asserts that Truman met the challenge with an efficiency and courage that was not expected from a non Ivy League, Missouri born, failed haberdasher. 

For instance, he quickly made the decision to drop “the bomb” and that did put an end to WWII. Then he faced down Uncle Joe Stalin’s aggressive expansionism by spelling out what is now called “The Truman Doctrine.”  Most of the ideas came from Dean Acheson and General John Marshall and they were critical in saving post-war Europe from starvation and economic collapse while also keeping it out of the hands of communism. 

Central to the doctrine was that the United States could not return in peacetime to the isolationism it had cultivated after the First World War.  Great Britain was exhausted both physically and economically by the war and was forced to start divesting its worldwide empire.  In its place, said Marshall and Acheson, the USA must take up the mantle of world leadership.  Their immediate challenge was to deal with problems in Greece and Turkey.  They had to get Congress to authorize support for both countries before they fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s rampaging expansionism   Truman parlayed his doctrine with  The Marshall Plan and ultimately financed the rebuilding of Western Europe and the formation of NATO.  Through bends and turns with some successes and some bitter defeats (Viet Nam for instance) these doctrines have remained the cornerstones of  American international diplomacy right up to the present.  

Donald Trump’s presidency, though not treated in any detail in the book,  looms large at its end. Scarborough  points to the Truman legacy as one that needs to be re-assessed  in order to deal with Trump’s attempts to destroy foreign alliances,  muddy international trade, and ignore  science and climate change.  That is where we do get to see how Scarborough’s book meets his current broadcasting situation. He builds up Dean Acheson as the lynchpin that has not been given as much credit as deserved and lauds Truman as the man who laid the ground work for the creation of the cold war and the ground work for winning it.  The warning is clear.  Trump has destroyed many of our country’s commitments to internationalism  and  his brand of “America First and Alone”  is simply not viable in the modern world.

As the book’s  title says, Truman was  the right man for the time and had the right qualities of decisiveness, courage and fighting spirit to pursue a bi-partisan foreign policy through congressional legislation and approval.  David Ignatius’   sums it up better than I can when he says this is the story of how “‘a strange little man’ from Missouri, pulled together Republicans and Democrats to confront Soviet communism and establish America as a global power.”     I recommend this read if you do not feel familiarity with Truman’s tenure and legacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

 Christmas Greetings to all 

Volume XLVII                                                Christmas 2020                              December 25, 2020

I  have just finished a delightful memoir by Jacqueline Winspear, the creator of the Maisie Dobbs novels. She titles her book   This Time Next Year We’ll  Be Laughing.  The title came from an expression of hope used by her father who came back from the front late in World War II and found a London that was in smoldering ruins from the Nazi bombings.  This kind of hope expresses our fervent wish for every one of you for the coming year.  Who could have thought that in these pages, which I have normally used to celebrate the accomplishments of the year with humor and tongue in cheek, that all I can do is announce that we are alive and some of us are even still kicking.  With that in mind give me leave to organize this 47th annual Christmas letter around how lucky and privileged we have been in spite of the trauma all around us. 

Pictured above from left to right are our daughter’s family-- Mikel, Amy, Todd, and TJ   As the vaccine trucks start to roll,  I salute first of all our grandson--TJ, a paramedic in Texas, who has been  a first responder on the front line for the entire year.  Next, I tip my hat to his mother and our daughter,  who has been  delivering  an education to first graders in an environment that is frankly crazy to the extreme for both  students and teachers.    Odd as it may seem, the government shortage of coinage during the pandemic has kept son-in-law Todd working overtime in a metal smelter in order to help keep our economy in small change.  Our second grandson, Mikel (who might have been the headliner in any other year) has only been valiantly trying to survive his freshman year as a member of a singular college generation.   Oh for typicality again rather than trying to live in an on-line, off-line,  on-line, off-line,  my dog didn’t eat my essay, the internet chewed it up world.  Don’t worry, In spite of it all, he seems to be doing just fine.   

 Although Jan and I have not seen Amy or any of her family in a long time, the distance between us and our son and his family has been more emotionally wrenching.  Amy and Todd’s boys are grown men.  We’d love to keep on hugging them, but not being able to hug our two five and eight year old granddaughters since February has been a trial that Skype or Face-Time cannot make up for. Here they all are.  Selma is the younger sprite and on the left. Frida, her older sister,  is on the right.

Luckily they all managed to travel from their home in Finland to visit us in Arizona in February. David’s Finnish wife, Lotta, had long wanted to see the American West. So they ventured out during the girls’ winter school break for a look-see at the  Rockies and the depths of the Grand Canyon. They ended up with us in Tucson for a week before  heading back to Los Angeles where they took the girls to Disneyland on the day before it closed.  

2020 began on a note of joy ad happy expectation for the old folks. 

 We started our drive to Arizona a few days after celebrating our 60th Wedding Anniversary and arrived in Tucson on New Year’s Day.  We ate fine Mexican food, attended exciting theatre, signed up for lots of lectures on art and western history, and tramped  the trails in  Sabino Canyon.  In February we had a glorious time showing David and Lotta and their girls the many joys of the Tucson area that we have begun to love over the last several years.  

Then, not with a bang but a nasty whimper, it all went down the rabbit hole.  We settled down in our condo and nursed the vain hope that we could wait it out.  Even though we stayed an extra six weeks before we decided to risk driving back to Monmouth, our family home became just another space in which to hunker down.  Needless to say the “hunker” was longer and harder than anyone expected.  Our planned trip to Finland and London in the summer of 2020 never materialized and we have now been doing our service to the “war effort” by trying to aggressively self isolate until we can all feel safe again.  We walk two miles almost every day and have become Zoom consumers for things like Rotary meetings and AAUW book discussions.  We have tried watching plays and concerts on line,  but have found them less than satisfying in comparison to the real thing.   Especially for me, the guy who spent his working life creating live drama, this year has felt like a piece of my true heart has been ripped out.  I think Jan has handled things a bit better as she can be happier with quietly reading and doing her crosswords and knitting. The one positive about having more spare time is that both of us have spent more effort in working on our family  genealogy and experimenting with a lot of new recipes.       

Yes,  it is a sad day in this sad month in this sad year of 2020 with most of us wishing we could have done more than just work to keep safe.  Even if there has been pain for you in the past months, there may be some solace in remembering  that Christmas does indeed celebrate a birth.  We are now resolved to wait patiently for Biden over Trump, vaccines over masks, real hugs over virtual ones, and dare we say it-- hope over despair.  

I therefore claim with confidence that by This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.                                                                        

from Jim and Jan 



Saturday, December 19, 2020

Review: How to Raise An Elephant by Alexander McCall-Smith


When in need of an uplift there is no better medicine than an Alexander McCall Smith novel and especially if it is one in the ongoing series of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency adventures.  Where there is Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Charlie, and Mma Potokwane,  there is hope, kindness, gentle humor, and a veneration of nature that is guaranteed to bring you back from the pit of despair.

How to Raise an Elephant  begins with the title reference problem. Charlie, the part-time not so competent employee, at the detective agency and Mma’s husband’s garage has a problem with moving a large object.  He borrows Mma Ramotswe’s van and upon its return there is a crease in the tailgate  and a strange smell.  From here the detecting expands from the immediate problem into a consideration of how the habitats of Africa’s native wildlife are being pressured by farming and civilization.  Minor problems do pop up along the way.  A distant cousin of Mma Ramotswe approaches her to ask for money and there are reasons to think the relative might be a bit of a grafter. There is also a new neighbor who may or may not have marital troubles.   

They all fold together into McCall-Smith’s gentle philosophy. Wisdom accrues as you live and with luck it will give you the judgment to get through life without too many disasters. You just can’t change people by shouting at them or making them feel bad about themselves. Immigrants just want a roof over their heads and an escape from war, violence, and poverty. Even large and heavy problems can be solved with a kindness and concern that allows people to change from within.  In particular, humans must be careful with judgments because it is very easy to be entirely wrong. As Mma Makutsi, always the arch jumper to judgment,  says to Mma Ramotswe toward the end of the book,  “Mma, you’re right about being wrong.”  

With that sentiment the world is put once more to right--at least for the moment.  The rains arrive and bring life, growth,  and healing to  the parched lands.  

(This volume would make a nice Christmas selection.)   

Monday, December 14, 2020

This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing by Jacqueline Winspear


This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing  by Jacqueline Winspear

The message of this simple yet profound little book is stated quite clearly by Ms. Winspear. “We are all of us products of our family mythology. Stories are not only passed down, but nested in every cell.”  She goes on to say if you write a memoir it must of necessity be about your parents (or I suppose your lack of them) because everything is underpinned by how they reacted to what was going on around them as you are growing up in their presence. The title comes from one of Winspear’s father’s favorite phrases.  He was an explosives expert in WWII and came back from the front toward end of the war and  finding London in ruins said, "This time next year we'll be laughing."  She remembers him saying that same phrase many more times over the years.

If you pick up this book it will probably be because you have read and enjoyed some or all of the fine  Maisie Dobbs novels that Winspear has written.  You will not be disappointed because it will add some fascinating insights into how the author’s life seems to have been a predicate for her writing and the character of Maisie Dobbs herself.  Artistry, whether on  canvas, stage, or page tends to prioritize the looking at things in a new or different way and Winspear’s father above all wanted his children, as she put it, "to think different." One story she relates is when her dad sees her trying to imprint a Tee-shirt to follow a current fashion and says, ”Why would you want to be like everyone else?”  Then he went on to make her do a new and different original design for the shirt. 

Inbetween her evocative descriptions of the English countryside and the constant financial insecurity of her family, we also get several revealing comments about the nature of “memoir” writing itself.  I liked particularly her discussion of how writing a memoir was like  a quest into a tunnel of veils.  You pull one after another back and then have to wonder if the event you are recalling really happened the way you now remember it.  Has what has happened since in some way made your current memory false?   Or even more provocatively are there elements in your life experiences that have stuck in your memory, but should have been discarded long ago because they sent you down unnecessary or painful blind alleys?

Let me say finally that if you are a lover of England and its landscape and history, and its attitudes toward life, you can still enjoy this one without having read any of her novels. She comes off as someone I would love to get to know personally.  

P.S.  I found the title phrase of this book so compelling right now that I used it as the organizing positive principle of my yearly Christmas letter to friends and relatives. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Do you need some total escape detective fiction?

Faith Martn series featuring DI Hillary Greene 

The world calls to seriousness, but there is only so much a human can take.  Thus enters the escape fiction genre and I prefer good old fashioned whodunnits.  Faith Martin has created an Oxford Detective Inspector called Hilary Greene. She is middle aged and coming off  her" bent" fellow officer husband who has recently been killed in a car crash, but has stashed a pile of his ill gotten gains in some secretive place that a number of people are still looking for.  Her superiors all think she is a top notch investigator and thus saddle her with green recruits needing instruction, old thorns in the side that no one else can tolerate, and mysterious folks who always seem to have unusual agendas. She lives on a canal boat on the Thames just out of Oxford and that adds a nice link to the countryside and the various villages where the crimes seem to be committed. 

There tends to be one murder to each short book and  the five I've read so far all have a nice balance between Oxfordshire local color and plain old fashioned  shoe leather investigations and interviews.  There are generally some nice twists before the nasty is nabbed.  By and large limited violence, sex, and hard language so I guess the books fit into the "Cosy" category. They do come with a glossary of Britticisms at the end if you are not already on top of common Brit idioms like boot, knickers, and semi-detached.  

Hillary is bright but definitely has personal problems to work on. She and her fellow workers are interesting enough to keep you moving on without having to think too much about anything. Having spent time in England and been to Oxford and environs helps. In one book she goes to the Trout Inn outside of town and I have been there and it has always been one of my favorite spots in the English countryside.

Best of all, if your have Amazon Prime, you can read at least the first ten for free on your Kindle.  No muss no fuss no clutter on our bookshelves.   Meanwhile I am reading a revised biography of Arthur Miller and a memoir by Jackie Winspear (the creator of the Maisie Dobbs series). 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

HEAVY HEAVY--The Warmth of Other Suns


Heavy, Heavy,

If you are looking for something light to read, Isabel Wilkerson's  2010's The Warmth of Other Suns  is not  one you are going to put on  your short list. It is heavy in weight (some 500 pages) and  in challenging content..  If you are white and feeling pretty good about how you managed to succeed in spite of challenging circumstances, it will also be a rather nasty wakeup call. 

Should you decide to take up the challenge, you can start with the knowledge that writer Gay Talese called the book--“A seminal work of narrative non-fiction.”   My start will be to note that I finished it on the same day that President Elect Biden announced his first cabinet picks. Among them was the appointment of a  long time African American diplomat to be Ambassador to the United Nations.  Her story along with the story of Vice President Elect Harris, could easily be included as examples of the slow but hopefully steady continuation of what has now been called  the “Great Migration.”  Wilkerson said her central purpose was to tell the story of this vast population shift and emphasized that it did not come from abroad but from within the country.  From  WWI  all the way into the 1970’s several million  African-Americans moved out of the  Jim  Crow South and into the rest of the country.  Wilkerson also wanted to change the emphasis of past studies on this migration from demographic statistics, sociology, and politics to the more personal telling of  the life stories of those who dared to make and survive the journey. And for me that is what makes the book readable as a narrative rather than an academic tome. 

To do this she settled on three archetypal African Americans out of the many she interviewed. Then she distributed their stories in small snippets while filling the spaces in-between with the historical contexts they were living through.  Readers will meet a flamboyant MD,  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who drives alone in his Buick all the way to California from Louisiana to start a new life. They will  meet George Swanson Starling, a bright young fruit picker just starting his education, who has to flee Jim Crow retribution for his activism and finds himself working for the rest of his life on a rail line that plies the coast from his native Florida to the Big Apple.  And finally you will meet the lynchpin character, Ida Mae  Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s  long suffering wife,  who travels with her husband and their two children (with another on the way)  north on the Illinois Central to exchange  their no win cycle of poverty and violence for a  new life in the teeming tenements of  Chicago’s south side. 

Though each of these three suffered from the political, social, and economic  reality of the racist Jim Crow South,  each of them also faces the more subtle but equal racism in their new homes.  

Ida Mae called up the most emotion in me as her struggles center in the very Midwest that I grew up in. Dr. Foster’s journey hooked me because he was  flamboyant and theatrical.  There was a familiarity there as well because on  his drive to California  he went through Lordsburg, NM, a town my wife and I have driven through on Interstate 10 every year for the past five years on our way to winter in Tucson.  Foster’s experience in Lordsburg  was heart wrenching as he searched futilely for a hotel or motel that would rent him a room, while our experience many years later has always been pleasurable as we passed through. George Starling was for me the most tragic because he was intelligent but ended up  traveling back and forth between his new home and the place he left without ever managing to gain what he had started out wanting the most—a formal education.  

All three of these brave folks, who dispersed to every part of our land, blend together to tell the indelible truth that white America has not made enough progress yet to rid itself of its systemic faults.  The courage of these migrants to leave their birth homes, to survive in an entirely new environment,  and yes to succeed there amidst a system that was designed to block their every attempt to rise,  is ultimately a sign of hope for me.  There must somehow be a way to find some light at the end of our tunnel of shame. .

 Was the “Great Migration” worth it?   Did the millions just trade one enslaved condition for another equally as bad?   Wilkerson agrees that initially academic studies said that the migrations solved nothing and just transported the problems of the South to the North.  But she then goes on to argue that those conclusions were in error.  A modern re-study of the data shows her that the migrants were not just bringing the same unrest to their new homes.  She claims that on balance the migrants were more educated than their northern competitors, that their families were more socially stable,  and that they were  more likely to earn better salaries because they were willing to work harder and longer even in less desirable jobs.   In other words the migration moved the most able , the most dedicated, and the most resilient  to the new lands  where they didn’t necessarily prosper, but where they were at least able to recapture some dignity and wisdom that could be passed on to the next generations.    

There is  much more in this beautifully written and moving study,  but I will leave it to you to find those for yourself.    


Monday, November 23, 2020

Where Was I When Learned of JFK's assassination?

 According to Monmouth College Historian Jeff Rankin only eleven people are in town now who were at the college on Nov. 22, 1963 when John F Kennedy fell victim to Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets in Dallas, TX .  When asked to comment on where I was on that fateful day and how it connected to the college, I  sent Jeff the following.  . .    He added the loverly picture of a young guy without a beard who has aged only a little in the past sixty some years. 

Image for post

I DO WELCOME THE CHANCE to relate again the story of how and where my wife and I experienced the traumatic experience of John F. Kennedy’s death because it was indelibly connected to our lives, the college and its students. At my faculty retirement sendoff party in the late spring of 2002, my short talk included the observation that unfortunately my career at Monmouth College was bookended by tragedy. 9–11 occurred just after the start of my final year of teaching and John Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of 1963 just as I embarked on my first year.

Tom Fernandez and I were hired to teach in what was then called the Speech Department by Jean Liedman (yes the one the dorm is named after) beginning in September of 1963. Tom was an experienced Ph.D. and took over as head of the department so Jean (Miss Liedman) could devote more time to her duties as Dean of Women. I was a greenhorn instructor and slotted to teach some speech and direct the college theatre program. Dr. Fernandez was an avid promoter of competitive speech activities such as Debate, Extemporaneous Speaking, Oratory, and Oral Interpretation and immediately started to prepare some of our new students to compete at the Bradley Speech Tournament in November. My wife’s parents lived in Peoria (thus a free bed and meals that the college didn’t have to pay for) and we were quickly recruited to drive some of the competitors over to the Tournament.

That fateful Friday morning we loaded three MC students into our back seat and headed out on old Highway 150 (no I-74 freeway then) for Peoria. As we drove into Brimfield (again yes you had to drive though towns not around them in those days), I noticed that I could use some gas and pulled into the town’s little Standard station. While the attendant filled the tank (self service was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye back then), I went into the station to pay. A tiny screened black-and-white TV high on the wall in back of the counter was on and I looked up and heard a serious looking announcer say that they had just had a report that the president had been shot in Dallas. I returned to the car and told my wife and the students. We immediately turned the car radio on to hear bulletins as we proceeded on to Peoria. When we arrived on the Bradley campus, I parked outside of the Student Union. We rushed in and quickly found a large room packed with students and professors mostly sitting on the floor and watching a single TV set in stunned silence.

The speech tournament actually went on that weekend as students had come from several states to compete, but there was a weird pall about the whole affair. The competitors filtered out to do their events and then returned to that TV room to silently watch events unfold. We drove back to Monmouth on Sunday in tomb-like silence. I have no recollection of how any of them did in their events. And that is my “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was assassinated story?”

I will add this coda. Three or four years ago at a Golden Scots weekend on campus an alum came up to me and said, “ I remember you. I was in your car when you came back and told us that Kennedy had been shot.” We did talk a bit about our experiences that weekend, but I am ashamed now to say that neither my wife or I can recall his name. Maybe if this is published he will come forward again.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Review of THE ANGEL COURT AFFAIR by Anne Perry

Anne Perry’s The Angel Court Affair is rather thin soup even for this prolific “cosy” period mystery author.  It is billed as a Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novel, but Charlotte and all of the other female characters  (from the Pitt’s daughter to the crusty Lady Vespasia) are sadly left to populate the background,  Mr. Pitt, quite frankly, is far less interesting and more plodding.  He is initially asked to organize a  protective detail for  Sophia Delacruz, a British subject, who has married a Spanish nobleman.  Sophia is a  strident female evangelist, who has raised hackles among traditional Christians in a series of London speeches.  When she disappears and two of her associates are violently murdered, Pitt finds the Special Branch behind the eight ball and  involved in international political disruptions and long dormant academic  and financial chicanery rather than  evangelism. There are as usual some surprise turns at the end, but not much to convince anyone that the revealed buried motives are not stretched pretty thin.  Other than people going to gentleman’s clubs and riding in carriages, the period Victorian atmosphere is also rather minimal.  I give it a weak 2.5 and will, as usual, only pick up a Perry novel when there is nothing more compelling at hand.  


Friday, October 30, 2020

A Review of Jon Meacham's His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope


John Meacham notes at the very end of His Truth is Marching On  that he has not attempted to write a full scale biography of John Lewis, but instead “an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’s life in the Movement.” I agree with that summation.

We get quick coverage of Lewis’s birth and youth, and then attention to his assimilation of non-violence as found in Christianity, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Finally we are taken through the major civil rights campaigns that Lewis led or participated in.

One of the things I found appealing in the book is that it summarized for me a series of events that I lived through, but ashamedly did not see or feel as deeply as he did or I should have. This is perhaps not surprising as I was a young northerner who grew up in an almost totally white environment. My own  unconsciousness of racial issues wasn’t really aroused until my senior year of college in 1959 when I saw my first “colored” water fountains and restrooms on a spring break trip to Florida. Marriage, graduate school, new jobs, and a new family kept me conscious of, but clearly not participating in the movement in any significant way in the ten years after that. I wasn’t asleep through those years yet I think now that I probably thought that starting a new independent life took precedence over the struggle Lewis was engaging in. And I have a feeling that I was not the only young white man from the upper Midwest who used that as an excuse in those days.     

Looking back now at Lewis’s courage in the face of constant adversarial challenges is something that stands out on every page of Meacham’s book. Lewis comes off as neither utopian or cynical, but as a realist who was steadfastly willing to take a punch without responding in order to move the fight forward to another round.  Always step forward, never back.

Definitely new to me was how dependant Lewis’s philosophy was on education and on sessions at the Highlander Folk School. This was a philosophy oriented summer camp spearheaded by a labor organizer named Myles Horton. It was integrated and focused on the “love your neighbor” admonishment of Christianity. Rosa Parks went there in 1955 before the Montgomery Bus boycott and at other times Martin Luther King went there, Pete Seeger went there, and even Eleanor Roosevelt went there. John Lewis attended sessions in 1958 before launching the 1960 Louisville lunch counter sit-ins.   

Having just finished reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, I am now much more attuned to the systemic racism that Lewis was working against. The fight, as was pointed out by historian Arthur Schlesinger at the time, was to finally attack the white unconscious belief that there was a necessary inferiority in skins of a darker color. Although Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896  sanctioned separate but equal, Justice John Marshall Harlan in dissent was already writing that there was no superior caste in America and that the Constitution is color blind.  And there in a nutshell was the “Movement” of the 1960’s. 

Another strong point of the book was its reminder of just how many forces were aligned against the Movement. We now seem to think that the sixties produced a marvelous groundswell of change and all we need to do is clean things about around the edges. Unfortunately we have mostly forgotten that the March on Washington of August, 1963 was deemed too radical and too strident for over 60% of the American public.  Although Robert Kennedy told Lewis that he had changed his mind after the March on Washington, the November assassination of JFK ushered in the realization that non-violent protest might not be enough.  

Meacham impressively steers us through how difficult it was for Lewis to keep to MLK’s 1961 admonition of “We will meet your physical force with soul force.” On “Bloody Sunday” March7, 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge John Lewis took the first blow from a billy club wielded by a “peace officer” and ended up with a skull fracture. In that year of the march from Selma to Montgomery there continued to be bloody events.   

By 1966 the “Black Power” movement was gaining steam as people like Stokley Carmichael and Malcolm X entered the fray. In July of 1966, John Lewis found himself removed as head of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee)—a group he had heroically led for a number of years. He had become according to Meacham, an “expendable commodity, a former leader.” Lewis was disheartened and backed off. He found renewed relevance by attaching himself to the campaign of Robert Kennedy only to be hit a final hammer blow in 1968 when both Bobby and MLK were assassinated.

That is where Meacham ends his story. There is no attempt to deal with the post 1960’s when Lewis went on to become a political icon in the US House of Representatives and that is just fine. The salient details have been covered. Meacham quotes him as saying then what you have to do is just “Keep pickin em up and putten em down” Always step forward, never back. We are left with the knowledge that the march toward that “more perfect union”  is still sadly unfinished.          



 Aug 63  (we had just returned from a summer in Europe and were moving to Monmouth


Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Three Whodunnits For Some Detective Escape

Between some more meaty books in the last month, I have zipped through a couple of mysteries. Cipher by M.A. Rothman was a totally predictable outing that had excellent FBI procedurals, but a story line that I am pretty much sick of--i.e. sexually obsessed serial killer taking out young women.  Skip this one.

One of my favorite authors for escape reading combined with  historic tidbits from my favorite city (London of course) is Christopher Fowler. He has written a series of books featuring two eccentric old codger British detectives--Arthur Bryant and John May. Their beat is London and the books always feature eccentric humor, strange plots, and tours through the hidden byways of the city you can’t be tired of unless you are tired of life. In Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart we find the daffy personnel of the Peculiar Crimes Unit trying to figure out why a dead man seems to be walking and why some ghoul seems to be digging up additional graves. This makes a read that is ideal for Halloween.

Fowler often brings theatrical lore into his books and I must admit that The Bleeding Heart doesn’t have a lot of that. If you are a theatreophile like me, look for Fowler’s The Memory of Blood, which features a murder that takes place during a theatrical cast party and is done in a locked room occupied only by the corpse and a life sized puppet of Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy fame. It is filled with delicious theatre history along with an ingenious plot.  


Monday, October 19, 2020

Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson

It’s been a while since I posted a review. The reason is that Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste with its Shakespearean tragedy sub-title is crammed with thought provoking content and illustrated with a cascade of personal and researched evidence. You have to stop and think after almost every chapter.

She chooses the term “caste” because she believes it goes deeper than race, skin tone, or religion in defining the hierarchy of human divisions that you are born into.

A strange derivational oddity is that the word “caste” itself, which we often associate with India comes from the Portuguese word “casta” meaning race or breed. It was applied by the Portuguese to the Hindu caste divisions they experienced  when trading with India.

Wilkerson, a black woman with a widely varying background, concentrates on three main caste systems which she believes have stood out over time. The first and oldest is the still active, caste system of India. Second, is the tragic, officially vanquished but rising again, Nazi campaign against the Jews. And third, her primary target, the unspoken caste pyramid in America that has persisted into the present day despite the legal termination of slavery after the Civil War.

She enumerates three pillars of all caste systems. They are set down by God or a divine presence.  You are born into the system and cannot easily rise out of it. And finally, there is a prohibition against marriage or propagation outside of any caste in order to avoid diluting or mixing the blood lines.

In discussing the history of the German dealings with the Jews, she makes a strong argument that many of the Nazi justifications for their policies were taken whole cloth from the American “eugenics” movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.

She argues that all dominant groups in a caste system are sensitive to threats from below, but the lower the caste the more fearful they become of losing the fewer rungs below them on the ladder. For instance white lower class Americans with less education are extremely concerned with separating themselves from the lower classes of color. She owes this to a fear that the one commodity that separates them (their white skin) is losing value.  If this seems prescient two weeks before our current election I cannot deny it.   

In America the dominant or Brahmin class has been white, landed, and educated. Think of Washington, Jefferson, plantation owners all over the south, and the industrial giants of the eastern sea board. Now put into it the figure of a black man by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, who created what she calls a “supernova of fear and anxiety” amongst both white leaders and the white lower castes.

The election and then re-election of Obama, she argues, has  thrown the white under classes into total panic. The fear of what will happen when the population shifts toward more people of color has shown itself in the hatred of immigrants and the election of a man who is going build a wall to keep the Mexicans out and who will put his foot down on China to save lower class jobs. Conservative American protestants, commonly called Evangelicals, have joined in the chorus of fear and now rail against Muslims, gay rights, legal abortion, and liberal social programs. All of these ideas seem to favor groups who have always been on the bottom of the ladder and now are rising. 

Looking at the same movement from the standpoint of the Alpha class gives you another picture. How does the insecure Alpha behave?  He yells, he screams, he bullies, he attacks, and he lies in order to beat the enemies below into submission. Who does this remind you of?

She also cites studies that 80% of all whites (both rich and poor, both educated and not as well educated) exhibit “unconscious bias” toward African Americans because the American culture has exposed them for so many years to so many myths about people of color.  They are criminals, rapists, lazy, can’t be educated, won’t keep their place, and siphon off all the welfare money. Although the more obvious discrimination of the Jim Crow period has receded, she argues, that most whites still discriminate in unthinking ways.

She goes on to explore the many more ways that the subordinate castes in the United States were kept down not just by skin color, but by economic restrictions.  “Redlining” has kept people of color in the United States from living in certain areas. Banking discrimination has kept them from financing homes or businesses. This combines with well established facts that struggling whites and most blacks get poorer education, poorer health care, and have poorer nutrition by being congregated into food deserts. Ultimately these folks have more untreated health conditions and lower life expectancies than the wealthy. Add this to more stringent policing and more and longer incarcerations and you have a concerted system of underground controls that continue to keep the already oppressed down and in their place. To bring this again to the present, all you need to do is look at the current Covid statistics in relation to who is getting the disease and who is dying more often.

The end result of all of this has been to keep the lower castes  both black and white from accumulating wealth, which in turn deprives them of the most valuable of all traits--POWER. Power is what the top class desires and what it will defend at all cost.

Ultimately she admits that caste doesn’t explain all the ills in this world, but she does insist that it has become hard to understand American life without taking its long lasting and “embedded hierarchy” into account,

She feels that the price American pays for its caste system is ironically a bleaker and less benevolent landscape for all. We have no universal medical care, few family leaves for illness or pregnancy, shorter or no vacations, weaker retirement care, and overall less concern for our fellow citizens than most other developed countries. For an update on this idea you need only to think of the symbolism embodied by wearing a mask as we experience a worldwide pandemic.   

What must we work for? Not a violent revolution, she says, but more effort to at least understand the problem and then maybe to work slowly to manage some fixes. We should search for the humanity of the person in front of us. We are here and now. There is no sense in arguing about whether we are responsible for the sins of our forefathers. We are responsible for the good or ill we do to others who are alive today. We must try and make do with what we have and face up to the present by trying to change what we can change. You must admit above all that you have been born to a certain place in the scheme of things and now must decide whether you wish stay there or accept the challenge of trying to climb out of it.   

Inserted along the way in this stimulating book, are more little tidbits of derivation. For instance do you know the origin of the term “scapegoat?”  It comes from a Hebrew tradition of presenting two goats at the altar. One is killed to cleanse the sanctuary and the other is presented live to the Lord. A culture thus attempts to transmit its sins to the “scapegoat.” Over time the meaning has mutated to seeing the “scapegoat” as a symbol of misfortune for everyone in the scapegoat group. Thus you end up with the Jews blamed for the ills of German society and the  criminal, lazy, welfare stealing blacks and immigrants who are blamed for ruining the fantasy world that never was. These groups whether Jews, Untouchables, or people of color are coming to get you and must be segregated and stopped. Sound familiar?

Another little morsel was the origin of the term “Caucasian.”  It actually comes from a 17th century German medical professor who collected skulls and thought that one that came from the Caucasus was his most beautiful specimen. And thus the name for the fair haired, fair skinned, Aryan white European stock comes from Central Asia.

Sorry this is long, but it strikes me as important to at least consider this view of the world presented by one of those who was born with a weight on her head rather than a silver spoon in her mouth.


Saturday, October 03, 2020

Review Louise Penny's A Rule Against Murder


Penny Louise A Rule Against Murder 2008 4th in the series

I hate to say it, but I have finally found a real clinker in Penny’s long and distinguished list of novels. We find ourselves in a secluded Canadian lakeside summer resort that manages to have Armand Gamache and his wife as guests along with one of the most vituperative and vile families you can imagine. Very few of the Morrow family are likeable with the exception of a rather strange and androgynous child who cannot jump.  

For a reason I still can’t fathom the family matriarch has decided to erect a large statue of her deceased husband on the grounds of this resort that the family has apparently visited regularly over the years. It is no surprise when one of this clan is murdered shortly after the unveiling of the statue.  

Gamache is already Armand on the Spot and takes charge of the investigation. We learn a good deal more about the pasts of this covey of unpleasant suspects while everyone chows down on the gourmet meals provided by the lodge’s staff who also are suspects of course. As in all of the Gamache series our chief inspector also must deal with some moral failure in this own life. In this case it is the onus of his father’s conscientious objector past, which is rather too conveniently tied to the plot by having the 2nd husband of the matriarch revealing that he knew Gamache’s father was a coward.  As they say one coincidence too far.  

A slow start develops into a less than convincing motive when the final excavation into the checkered pasts of our suspects is revealed. I must admit that ultimately I couldn’t care less who turned out to be the murderer.  

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mark Sullivan "Beneath a Scarlet Sky" Review


Mark Sullivan  Beneath a Scarlet Sky Review

My wife has been reading about the Holocaust ever since she devoted a major teaching unit to it for her sixth grade classes years ago. She recommended Sullivan’s BENEATH A SCARLET SKY to me and since I am an avid consumer of WWII stories, I pulled it up on our Kindle. 

A young Italian boy named Pino Lella is the main character in this semi-historical narrative that covers the last days of WWII’s Italian campaign. Pino was a real historical figure, but Sullivan’s novelistic treatment has espoused a host of negative charges ranging from total fabrication and faulty dating to his easy acceptance of Lella’s accounts without sufficient confirmation from other source

With that caveat what we do have is the story of Pino’s exploits as a savior of Jews and a spy for the resistance and the allies. He begins his career as a 17 year old experienced mountaineer who guides Jews over the Alps to safety in Switzerland. A bit later he returns to his home town of Milan (now ruled by Mussolini and occupied by the Nazis) and is rather quickly and astonishingly taken on as the personal driver by general Hans Leyers, a high ranking Nazi industrial engineer. Leyers has a mistress in Milan and the mistress has a maid named Anna who Pino falls desperately in love with. Pino now sports a Nazi armband but has become a spy who delivers German plans to his Uncle and the Resistance.

Both General Leyers and Lella seem to fall under a single quote from the book that seems to highlight at least one truth. “The game of life, it is always preferable to be a man of the shadows, and even the darkness, if necessary. In this way, you run things, but you are never, ever seen."

The prose is rather rudimentary and sometimes even wooden. There seems little room for real reflection on the human feelings that lie beneath the firestorm of action. I also have no doubt that the narrative and timelines have been tweaked to make Lella’s involvement in major events more dramatic.

Even with these problems I still found it a good historical reminder of the Allies’ slow and bloody progress north in Italy as the war was winding down in France. My recommendation is if you decide to read it, take it more as an adventure novel rather than history.  It will always be hard to tell from this distance if Lella and his brother were embroidering their own lives like fisherman whose catch gets bigger with each passing year or if Sullivan just wanted to make his story more appealing and exciting to the potential movies producers who expressed interest in it. 

i.e. enjoy but buyer beware.



Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Louise Penny GLASS HOUSES (2017) review


Louise Penny Glass Houses (2017) review

Let’s start with a summary of a conversation from about half way through the book. Myrna (the psychologist and bookstore proprietor), Reine-Marie (Gamache’s wife), and Gamache (our heroic and always troubled detective) are discussing why Pinocchio was not a real boy? It was not just because he was made of wood, but that he had no conscience, other than Jiminy Cricket. People with no conscience at all are called psychopaths. We are used to the rather transparent movie villains of this type, but most psychopaths are far cleverer than that. They have mastered the art of pretending to care, that it is they who have been wronged, and then achieve their retribution by masterful manipulation. (Think Iago,) Gamache is beginning to pierce the  fog that the Cobrador appearance has laid down and now starts to posit that  someone in the background was manipulating all the participants as well as the investigators. As Penny puts it, someone was lurking in or around the village who was “in fact not quite human.”

It is this driving force that Armand Gamache must deal with and I wish that Penny had been more successful in elucidating it.  Somehow the early narrative line that keeps shifting from the lead up to the murder and back to the trial of the accused murderer never quite gels. As one critic noted, there is “too much teasing with too little action,” There is “too much philosophizing and repetition of the same situation.”  

Why Penny feels it necessary to conceal the identity of the accused from the reader is beyond me. It may create some early suspense, but everyone in the courtroom can see the identity for themselves so why not us? Another bothersome detail from the early going is that Penny’s normal skillful integration of weather and nature seems to have gone astray. She puts Chief Gamache in a literal hot seat by turning the courtroom into a sweaty tizzy by the convenient loss of the air conditioning. This may have been pertinent symbol for the Scopes Monkey Trial, but seems rather too contrived for the modern day.  

What does still work is the establishment of an atmosphere of fear and dread through the use of the scary legend of the Cobrador, who historically stood silent and shamed a miscreant until they broke down. That element tracks nicely through the entire book.

Ms. Penny is also known to integrate larger philosophical debates into her murders.  Here Gamache has taken on his new position and has inaugurated a secret “burn all boats” plan in order to deal with the growth of international drug cartels. This threat is believable and current, yet it takes a leap of faith to believe that in a tiny place like Three Pines there would not be some notice of rampant strangers running vast quantities of drugs through multiple border gaps for years without raising a shred of suspicion until now. It is for this reason that I feel that Penny seems to be laying more on her idyllic fictional town of Three Pines than it can bear. Would the head of a giant multi-national drug cartel be so stupid as to run around with only one bodyguard no matter how safe he felt? Is the Bistro quite up to harboring so many sinister guests and more secrets behind fireplaces and in walls than are found in a dozen Dan Brown novels? I think not.

Nevertheless, Gamache’s moral wrestling match on the issue holds  attention. Long term revenge nags as various approaches are debated. Mahatma Ghandi’s thoughts about “a court of conscience” that goes beyond and above temporal laws keeps rearing up.  Gamache and his few confidants struggle with whether a moral imperative to tell the truth exists. Can such tragedies as the destruction of a Coventry or Dresden be defended when in pursuit of a later and more overwhelming defeat of the axis? And ultimately for Gamache can perjury or at minimum failure to reveal what you know be compensated for by a larger long term necessity?

The book may simply put Gamache on a pedestal just a few feet too high and then try to justify an overly outlandish premise with too many philosophic mind games. To be gracious here, perhaps the death of her real life husband while she was writing the book may have had an impact on Penny’s more pinpoint narrative skill. It would certainly be understandable. Meanwhile I shall leave Jiminy Cricket to deal with Pinocchio’s lengthening nose.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny


Review A Great Reckoning

It is difficult to begin a commentary on Louise Penny’s 2016 A Great Reckoning. There are just so many threads to connect. It clearly wants to find the good memories while continuing to root out decay and the evils of old wounds. As Beauvoir says toward the end of the novel, “. . . the world is a cruel place, but it’s also filled with more goodness than we ever realized. And you know what? Kindness beats cruelty in the long run. It really does. Believe me”

The key to the plot is that Armande Gamache has moved once again out of semi-retirement to take on the task of commanding the Surete Training School, whose students have been exploited and trained in cruelty by the corrupt police administrators of the past. The murder of one of the old professors at the school that Gamache has kept on staff in order to find final evidence of his corruption links four young Surete cadets as well as Gamache to the murder and to the search for secrets found in an old map. In this case it is a 100 year old orienteering guide found secreted in the walls of the Three Pines Bistro. The map connects a stained glass church window that honors young WWI war dead in Three Pines’ St. Thomas church and that prods a search to find the mapmaker and the identity of the young war victims. All is ultimately connected to the town, its quirky bunch of inhabitants, to Armand Gamache’s career and his family, and personal devils, and finally to the evils of the Surete itself.

The ending is moving and Penny leaves a solution to a final lurking question until the very last words. All told one of the very best in a series of very fine books that go well beyond the province of detective mysteries. Penny is in the league with P.D. James and Iris Murdoch when it comes to integrating philosophy, poetry, history, music, food, and brilliant evocation of nature and place into her work.  I mention Murdoch because we learn that while writing this book, she was dealing with early onset dementia in her husband, which is of  course a reversal but still a moving comment on how one moves on and creates in fiction as well as life.    

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Eric Larson's The Splendid and the Vile review


Larson Eric The Splendid and the Vile

“Mammoth” is a word that defines anything written about Winston Churchill. Everything about the man is more than life-size and the bibliography expands to fit his personality and accomplishments. Eric Larson with  The Splendid and the Vile  joins the list of eminent writers who have tackled the Churchillian mountain. The book’s five hundred closely packed pages covers only the critical period between his election as Prime Minister through to the war’s end. It differs from a standard military battle history because it tends to  concentrate on the man, his family, his inner circle, and the people who endured the horrors of the Blitz with him.   

A good deal of this retelling is not pleasant. You must endure the destruction of Coventry, Plymouth, and London in excruciating detail. On one of Churchill’s now legendary excursions into the smoldering wreckage of London, Larson reports he asks a small boy what he wants to be when he grows up. The boy responds with a depth beyond his years, “Alive!”

That may illustrate the “vile” of the title, but there is plenty of time devoted to the splendid too. We have detailed reconstructions of the composition  and delivery of some of his now famous speeches to Parliament and humanizing glimpses of the man in his bathtub puffing on a big cigar while dictating messages. One humorous quote was from a young woman who feared she would die a virgin if she didn’t have sex with her boy friend.  Her diary records "If that's really all there is to it, I'd rather have a good smoke or go to the pictures."  

Even more interesting are detailed accounts of Churchill’s family life. We get to peer into his relationship with his wife, Clementine, his young daughter, Mary, and the roving eye of his son Randolph’s wife, Pamela.

Finally there are many portraits of the political figures and aides who surrounded the great man. My own knowledge expanded as I learned more about people like Lord Beaverbrook, his airplane construction tsar, Jock Colville, his administrative assistant, Professor Lindemann, the armament guru, and Inspector Thompson the sole detective who was his constant bodyguard.

By and large the book reads as smoothly as a novel. The pictures emerge through evocative descriptions. One example I recall came in another of Churchill’s many walks to survey bomb damage. Larson says, “In his long overcoat over his round form, he looked like the top half of a very large bomb.” Only occasionally are we bogged down in too much detail. The main item I recall in this vein was a full page devoted to a list of drug supplies that the hypochondriac Rudolf Hess packed in a suitcase when he flew into England toward the end of the war.

Anyone with a penchant for WWII biography will find this book fulfilling. Churchill the man was often erratic and sometimes  downright weird, but there is no question that he was  “Splendid.”

A final suggestion. If you have never been to London, do not miss the experience of touring the Admiralty War Rooms where a lot of  this book takes place. It is now a splendid museum.