Book Reviews

A few books I’ve read and/or listened to in the last few weeks…

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes:

This is a novel, but?in many ways, a memoir?of the author’s experiences as a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam. There is much gruesome description (feels more re-living) of combat; internal (racial) strife among the soldiers and officers, and the almost unbearable trials of existence in the jungle experienced by the dissociated and displaced young Americans.
This is an intelligent and unrelenting search for meaning/truth in the experience of that absurd and needless war?from one soldier?s point of view. Sometimes the author seems to almost grasp some essential verity but, often as not, the experience remains either a despairing or an ecstatic mystery.
I don’t think this was primarily intended to be an anti-war novel but that’s very much what it adds up to in the end.
It takes some getting used to because the author introduces a lot of detail about rank, chain of command, military terms, etc. Once it gets rolling it builds up and it’s very hard to stop reading.

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Who Are We and Should it Matter in the Twenty-first Century by Gary Younge

A writer for The Nation, Gary Younge (who I interviewed on Sirius XM) is Black, born in the Caribbean, moved to England as a child; now lives in Brooklyn?
The Premise of the book is that over the last twenty-to-forty years or more?mostly in European countries but in the USA, South Africa and other places?the clear definitions of national citizenship, race, religion, and even gender have undergone an elemental change; the walls dividing who is white and black, Jewish and not Jewish, Irish and not Irish, “Colored” and “White”?are all tumbling down. This is due to mass immigration, intermarriage, economic leveling, and evolving cultural perceptions and a persistent movement toward Democracy in most parts of the world.
Naturally, in all places, you get the inevitable reaction from the “original” inhabitants of each place and class (The Gatekeepers)?the ?chosen? (usually self nominated and elected) who believe they have the deed and patent on who or what is THE REAL THING (think of the Tea Party).
The book is full of well-researched, full of fascinating detail by the well-traveled Mr. Younge, who adds?in support of some of his observations?just the right amount of personal illustrations from his own life. It doesn?t hurt that his writing is consistently intelligent and extremely readable.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs. Gaskell was a contemporary of Dickens, and wrote from a middle to upper-middle-class perspective about life in various parts of England. Represented beautifully are small, idyllic, country towns, privileged, spoiled London society, and the gestating, grinding mill towns that developed in the central and north part of the country beginning in the 1830’s and 40’s.
As for character and story, there is a great deal of swooning, heart-pounding romance. I suppose you could easily call this a “woman’s book” (and there were few good ones at the time). ?Woman?s book??so what? Speaking for myself, in my masculine dotage, where I?ve shifted my perceptions somewhat from my brain to my heart, I find her work very satisfying.
North and South?s heroine is a young woman, living in a country parsonage with her mother and father, who is suddenly relocated to one of the worst mill cities in England.
She is ?handsome? of course, but the opposite of frivolous and represents, certainly, one of the earlier representations of a feminist in English literature.
The book, being Victorian, is full of almost unbelievable twists and turns, severe disappointments and the omnipresent shadow of disease and death.
What makes North and South so especially interesting (considering what’s going on right now in Europe and this country) are the descriptions of the clashes between workers and mill owners/capital and labor. Also, Mrs. Gaskell writes with great feeling about the initial shocks and missed blessings of modernization (The railroads, machinery, manufacturing, etc, etc. In the presentation these details, Mrs. Gaskell is probably more gritty and real than Dickens.

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Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned, by John Farrell

Farrell (who I also interviewed) is a professional historian whose previous book was a best-seller about Tip O’Neill and his life in politics.
Farrell is a very good writer (sometimes a little too smooth and tries to pack too much information into the book?a great temptation considering how much fascinating, significant material his subject provides) but, in general, this is a wonderful biography; balanced and nuanced?doesn?t not fall into the frequent biographical quicksand of hagiography.
Mr. Farrell had access to trunks full of personal letters written by and to Darrow over the span of decades. They provide information about his internal life, his cases and causes that has never been revealed before.
Clarence Darrow was one of the most remarkable and important Americans this country has ever produced?in at beginning of the NAACP, ACLU, and the whole union movement when it was just getting started (and people were being fired, locked up and even murdered just for organizing to form a union). That sounds familiar, right?
Darrow was also the greatest foe of the death penalty the country has ever produced.
Along with his story, you get the story of America (especially labor, crime, women’s rights, etc. etc.) from around the 1880?s right up unto the beginning of World War 2.
Darrow’s arguments and pleas to judges and Juries are legendary but there more here than have ever been recorded before. He was such a complex, brilliant and flawed man, and the book is very well written (by turns funny, despairing and inspiring).

– Mike Feder (New York City – July 13, 2011)

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