Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Positively 4th Street : The Lives And Times Of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, And Richard Farina / David Hajdu

For anyone interested in the history of the early 1960s’ Folk movement, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street is a “must read”.  In the book, he focuses on four key figures of the explosion in folk music at the time.  The first two individuals will not be surprising choices to anyone knowledgeable about the period.  Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were the Queen and King of Folk.  Not only did both of their musical careers achieve exalted status, they also were briefly romantically involved with each other.  The two other people that Hajdu highlights are not names that readily come to mind, but are wise choices nonetheless.  One of them is Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister.  The other is Richard Farina, Mimi’s husband and musical partner.

Unsurprisingly, Dylan does not come across as a nice person in this biography of his early career.  While he is clearly one of the most gifted song writers of my lifetime, he comes across as a self-centered individual who couldn’t care less who he has to step on to achieve the fame he believes is his due. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about Joan Baez, especially at the start of her career.  For me, the individual who most stands out as worthy of the reader’s respect is Richard Farina.  Not only did Mimi and he turn out two highly acclaimed albums, he was a gifted poet and wrote a novel that is still highly regarded a half century on, Been Down So Long It Looks Up To Me.  Unfortunately, he was killed shortly after its publication in a motorcycle accident in 1964.  The reader is left wondering what his musical/writing career might have achieved if he had lived on, like Dylan, into this century.

The book ends with another motorcycle accident.  This one involved a then twenty-five year old Bob Dylan.  It led him to reconsider his life and career as he withdrew into seclusion in Woodstock, New York.  Just before the accident, he had turned his back on the Folk movement.  Instead, he was trying to live a rock and roll lifestyle, including the drug over-indulgence of the period.  In Woodstock, he would hook up with The Band as his backing accompaniment for the next phase of his storied career.  It is at this point that Positively Fourth Street draws to a close.

Having read this multi-biography, I now intend to read Richard Farina’s only novel.  Even if not as exalted as Dylan in today’s musical canon, Farina’s limited output shows that he was clearly a contender of the crown that Dylan now wears.  What makes this book so interesting is that both men spent a number of years living in the same household.  For anyone interested in the folk music explosion of the 1960s, Positively Fourth Street does a marvelous job of providing an intimate look into the lives of four of the key figures driving the movement.


Hannah Coulter / Wendell Berry

Over his prolific writing career, Wendell Berry has created a number of books set in the fictional town of Port Williams, Kentucky.  This novel is the only one that features a woman narrator.  It is the voice of Hannah Coulter, a now elderly woman in the early 2000s, presenting a fascinating autography of her life in this close knit rural community.

In it, she vividly recreates her childhood growing up during the Great Depression.  It is also a tale of her relationships with two husbands,  The first ended shortly after it began, with her husband being killed during the European conflict in World War II.  Her next marriage stood the test of time until her husband’s death from cancer late in the twentieth century.  Describing each, she paints pictures of the compromises necessary on the parts of both parties in creating a loving relationship.  The lives of the children from each marriage are also addressed, showing how, in a society now favoring urban life over rural traditions, all of them grew up and left Port Washington to settle in cities across the United States.

Wendell Berry is a gifted poet, and while the book eschews poetic flourishes, his simple prose is a delight to read.  It effortlessly captures the essence of rural life and touches the heart strings.  Hannah Coulter is an elegy to the slow death of the American family farm.  It recreates a time where hard work and strong moral beliefs were their own reward.  The book held me captivated from beginning to end.  Atmospheric and quietly moving, it is essential reading for anyone interested in a time period now rapidly fading from human memory.  I’m sure this novel will rank as one of my favorite reads here in 2019.

Thunder In The Mountain : Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, And The Nez Perce War / Daniel J. Sharfstein

The Nez Perce War took place in 1877, and it represented one of the last attempts by an Indian tribe to stop the White community from claiming the tribe’s territory as their own.  While it did involve several large battles between the Nez Perce and the United States government troops, much of the war simply became a 1,200 mile flight by the tribe to escape being entrapped by troops led by Oliver Otis Howard.  For decades, the Nez Perce had resisted the encroachment of American settlers on their traditional lands.  Leading up to the war, Chief Joseph, the tribe’s leader, had continually petitioned the U.S. government to recognize their rights to their lands in Oregon.  It was only after his appeals were dismissed that warfare finally broke out.

Oliver Otis Howard, the U.S. general in charge of forcing the Nez Perce off their land and onto a reservation, was known as the Christian General because of his strong religious beliefs.  He believed that all Indians should accept resettlement into a life of farming and adopt Christianity as their only path to redemption.  His past history was one marred by failure.  At Gettysburg during the Civil War, Howard was replaced after leading his troops into a battle where the majority of them lost their lives.  After the Civil War, he was appointed to lead the integration of the freed slaves into the South’s society as equals.  Again, he failed in the endeavor.  And when sent to the West Coast in the 1870s, his military campaign against the Nez Perce was roundly criticized as well.

Much of the book focuses on the events leading up to the conflict and what happened to the participants following it.  Sharfstein’s account is often bloated with superfluous details that serve little purpose.  Nonetheless, he succeeds in creating fully formed character sketches of all parties involved on both sides of the battle line.  Thunder On The Mountain unfolds with a sense of tragic inevitability.  It is clear from the first that the Nez Perce stood no chance of turning back the tide of White settlements into their territory.

What is surprising is how Chief Joseph emerged afterwards as a sympathetic figure across the United States.  In the twenty years following his tribe’s defeat, he continued to campaign to win back the land stolen from his tribe.  While he never succeeded in doing so, his message began to be respectfully received in the White House and Congress.  For anyone interested in gaining an understanding of the political and societal feelings toward the country’s Indian tribes during this time period, Thunder In The Mountains goes a long way in providing a completed picture.  In the end, while Howard was able to claim victory on the battle field, Chief Joseph succeeded in winning the PR campaign to win respect for the Nez Perce efforts to defend indigenous rights on the national stage.  

Stay Awake / Dan Chaon

In recent years I have read two captivating novels by Dan Chaon: You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply.  Both featured three characters presenting the same situation from their individual perspectives.  Each showed Chaon as a master of character development, featuring people who captivated the reader’s interest and rang true to life.

Stay Awake is a collection of short stories.  More limited in scope, each concentrates on a single individual, damaged by an event in their lives, a haunting moment that has pushed them to the periphery of society’s accepted norms.  While quite different in tone, all share a defining similarity, be it a failed marriage, a broken home in childhood, or an inability to achieve a hope for normalcy when compared to friends and family.

In these stories, there is a sense of an impending catastrophe.  As a result, the reader is kept on the edge of their seat, fearing the worst is about to occur.  To Chaon’s credit, he is able to provide satisfying endings that defy expectations.  The majority succeed in overcoming shared familiar elements to provide a separating jolt of originality.

Despite this, by book’s end, the stories tend to blend together.  Chaon cannot be blamed for this detriment.  No matter how well written, most collections of short stories suffer this same fate.  If isolated on their own, the stories in Stay Awake would linger in a reader’s memory.  When amassed in a collection like this, they all jostle for dominance, and as a result blur into a morass where only several stand out in remembrance.  Instead, I look forward to Chaon’s next novel, where he will again expand individual characters’ stories into a satisfying whole.

The Men Who Lost America : British Leadership, the American Revolution, And The Fate Of An Empire / Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

While I have read many books about the War of Independence, they were mainly told from the American perspective.  What attracted me to The Men Who Lost America is its focus on the British political and military decision makers during the conflict.  In the book, O’Shaughnessy concentrates on the men most often labeled as being responsible for Britain’s loss of America at war’s end.

Each of the men is given a biographical chapter, with the focus around their involvement in the conflict.  This leads to some repetitiveness, since each of the men’s activities overlap with the others’ interpretation of events.  Rather than being a detriment, this allows the author to show the differing perspectives of events already described.  The profiles in the book include the monarch, politicians, and the military leadership involved.

While each of the men profiled has been blamed for Britain’s loss of America, this detailed history provides ample evidence that there are far too many factors involved to lay blame on a single individual.  From the first, it was obvious to many in Britain that the war was not a winnable proposition.  The only hope for the British government was that there were enough loyalists in the colonies who would rise up to assist the occupying army in subduing the rebellion.  This failed to occur, and once France, Spain and Holland became involved in the conflict, Britain’s military resources were spread far too thin to deliver a knock out blow in America.  In the final analyses, the British chose to focus on preserving Canada and their Caribbean possessions.

For anyone interested in the history of the War of Independence, The Men Who Lost America offers a fresh perspective on the conflict.  For most Americans, the involvement of the individuals highlighted here will be unfamiliar.  O’Shaughnessy does a marvelous job of showing the wide range of issues they faced during the conflict.  Clearly written and meticulously researched, this book is sure to be a lasting addition to the canon of essential literature on the topic of the American Revolution.

There Are No Children Here : The Story Of Two Boys Growing Up In The Other America / Alex Kotlowitz

As the title indicates, this book tells the true story of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers.  The “other America” chronicled in this case is Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1950s.  At the time, it was a place where the area’s Blacks were eager to move into with their families.  Over time, however, crime and neglect began to reduce the complex into a cockroach infested building with broken appliances and filth everywhere.  By the 1980s, the time period the book describes, the residents of Henry Horner Homes feared for their lives with drugs and gang activity overrunning the area.

Lafeyette and Pharoah’s mother, LaJoe, grew up in the complex, and it is where she raised her eight children (the last three were triplets).  All shared the same father, Paul Rivers.  A parent with drug and alcohol problems, he is often absent from the family’s crowded apartment.  During the time period described, Lafeyette is a young teenager, struggling to keep out of trouble and avoid being caught up in the rival gang wars taking place in the neighborhood.  Pharoah, several years younger than his brother, is a studious daydreamer, hoping he will have the chance to attend college and escape the “projects”.

Alex Kotlowitz spent three years researching this book, conducting frequent interviews with both boys, their mother, and friends of the family.  While his story of urban poverty is at times heartbreaking and tragic, he also portrays the love that this family has for each other and the moments of brightness and hope that keep them from succumbing to despair.  

There Are No Children Here was a groundbreaking feat of reporting, and its “You Are There” perspective captures the challenges that LaJoe faced in trying to raise her children while on welfare.  Some thirty years after the book’s publication, one cannot help but wonder about what happened to Lafeyette and Pharoah once they reached adulthood.  In this meticulous portrait of the two boys and their family, Kotlowitz provides a harrowing description of the efforts it takes to survive when living in such a blighted urban landscape.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh / Carl Zimmer

In this sweeping overview of how heredity has shaped human society, Carl Zimmer examines the birth of genetics as a science, tracing its progression over the centuries to present times.  In doing so, he presents not only the scientific details our DNA, but also highlights the key figures involved in piecing together an understanding of how we inherit genes from our ancient ancestors, and how those genes are passed from parent to child.

The book reads like a first class mystery story as Zimmer follows the numerous missteps taken along the way, and how erroneous theories affected cultural beliefs and actions.  He does not scrimp on aspects of the science involved, but provides it in a manner that is readily understood by the layperson (i.e., me).  He is a gifted storyteller, and his lucid descriptions kept me engaged throughout.

Published in 2015, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, describes in its final chapter the advent of genome editing through the use of CRISPR.  It highlights the many ways this could shape our future as well as all the dangers that lurk in the shadows through using the new technologies now available to manipulate heredity.  Despite the book’s daunting length, Zimmer has taken a complicated topic and turned it into a page turner that is difficult to put down.

From beginning to end, this is a fascinating tour de force on the subject.  In an amalgamation that combines historical and scientific detail, Zimmer enriches his tale with fascinating character studies of the scientists who advanced our knowledge.  In doing so, he has created a scientific tome that reads like a novel.  It reveals not only how our genes have shaped the nature of who we are, but also the role environment plays in the process.  She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is a work that should be read by anyone curious about the topic.  One does not need a scientific background to fully appreciate Zimmer’s book.