Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill – Review

Manheim, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

This is an excellent resource for focused discussions on Eugene O’Neill. It is a collection of 16 articles about America’s foremost playwright. The articles are arranged somewhat chronologically, so they begin with an overview and a discussion of writers who influenced him–notably Strindberg and Ibsen. It then goes from his early plays to his posthumous plays. Like some rock and film stars, death was a career move for O’Neill. The book ends with some thematic essays and detailed bibliographical information.

For the more casual reader, probably the most helpful chapter is “O’Neill on Screen” by Kurt Eisen. Here is a list of most of the productions and recordings made for film and television. As anyone who recalls drama shows from the 50s and 60s like Playhouse 90 or even The Twilight Zone, or anyone who is a fan of BBC and PBS miniseries, Eisen notes that television is often a more suitable medium for a play than a film because a television studio has many of same effects and limitations that a stage does.

The chapter outlining the various stage productions of his plays is not only of historical interest, but might contain ideas for someone directing or producing one of O’Neill’s plays (or, for that matter, other plays with similar themes like many of Tennessee Williams). Somehow, they omitted the 1968 production of A Touch of the Poet by the Lincoln-Sudbury Players…

A few of the focused scholarly pieces are on topics like O’Neill’s treatment of women, blacks, and Irish. O’Neill was one of the first theater people to insist that actors playing black parts were actually African-Americans, rather than “serious” white actors in dark makeup. “A Tale of Possessors Possessed” by Donald Gallup outlines what we know of the scope of O’Neill’s projected family cycle of nine plays based on the history of an American family from the 18th through 20th century. Only one play, A Touch of the Poet, was completed, and a rough draft of More Stately Mansions was preserved. Few people have access to the papers Gallup had access to, so this information would be hard to find elsewhere.

Not all essays are complimentary. Matthew Wikander’s “O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity” criticizes O’Neill for being shallow and melodramatic. O’Neill might not disagree with the accusation of melodrama in some of his works, but he bled when he wrote. His characters often wore masks, literally in some plays, figuratively in all. Most in O’Neill’s audience would probably understand there was a depth behind the mask. Most audiences are able to pick that up.

For someone doing research on O’Neill, there is an extensive bibliography and notes at the end of each chapter. The last chapter is a detailed, referenced discussion of O’Neill criticism.

There are two chapters devoted mostly to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, generally considered O’Neill’s best work and considered by many (including most of the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill) the best piece of American drama ever. These chapters are well worth it for the appreciation of this beautiful work. Even the demanding T. S. Eliot said, “Long Day’s Journey into Night seems to me one of the most moving plays I have ever seen.” (204) I have never seen it, but I was nearly moved to tears just by reading it a few years ago. To paraphrase Martin Luther, I would think that anyone who was not moved by it should place his hand inside his shirt and check his heart to see if he is still alive.

A Room of One’s Own – Review

Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. 1928. Project Gutenberg Australia. 2007. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

This was recommended to me by a female colleague a few years ago. I have loved Woolf’s fiction since I read Flush in high school and had a good teacher teach To the Lighthouse in college. A Room of One’s Own is different. It is certainly interesting from a historical perspective, but the Western world has changed so much in the 85 years since she wrote it, that is seems almost medieval.

Much of the first part of this long essay (or collection of related essays) is the most dated. Here Woolf cites writings by numerous men–mostly academics–that show that women are fascinating but that men are far superior to them. It is impossible to imagine any male in an academic situation today writing something like that except possibly in jest. The president of Harvard had to resign for merely wondering why fewer women than men were attracted to math and science majors.

The title of the book comes from Woolf’s observation that there have been few serious women writers in English, and virtually none before the nineteenth century. Since writing seldom pays—Charles Dickens or Tom Clancy today are exceptions—a writer needs an independent source of income and a place away from others where she can write: a room of one’s own. Through most of history, women have had neither of these things.

Woolf also points out that in much poetry and fiction women are treated with great respect: “a person of the utmost importance, very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, and some even greater.” Then she adds, “But this is woman in fiction.”

Perhaps the most moving parts to contemporary reader is her realistic observation that simply most people do not care about literary art. Both Flaubert and Keats, she observes, faced indifference which frustrated them. The problem was compounded in Woolf’s day for women who have to face “not indifference but hostility.” A writer—you?

Woolf also believes that prose fiction is easier to write than drama or poetry. Jane Austen, who apparently did not have a room of her own, could be interrupted while writing prose fiction and not completely lose her train of thought.

One of the other observations that Woolf makes is also quite dated. She writes that since the publishing business is made up of nearly all men, women do not have much of a chance of being accepted as writers. Drawing room romances, she says, are not as important as books on war.

How times have changed! Now most editors, especially those who first see proposals and typescripts are women. Women are the gatekeepers. A recent books for teachers listing books for middle and high schoolers by topic has a brief listing on World War II. There is not a single book about a battle, a general or other soldier, or any political leader of the whole war. A boy or man would say there was nothing about the war at all. The only books listed are a few books about Hiroshima written from the point of view of civilians and a novel about an American girl who fell in love with a German soldier who was a POW in the United States. (The Holocaust was a separate entry). It is almost as if fighting did not exist in the war; that Pearl Harbor, D-Day, North Africa, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, or any of that ever happened. It is as if Americans decided to test their new bomb on a helpless Japanese city and kidnapped a young German and brought him to America! As a former boy, I’d ask where are the cool books about World War II, whether fiction like The Guns of Navarone or Run Silent, Run Deep or nonfiction like Commando Extraordinary or The Longest Day?

Woolf would be more than satisfied at the way women have taken over the publishing business. Not to mention that no academic who wanted to keep his job would write a word about male-female differences, let alone male superiority!

No, Virginia, times have changed. Women write more fiction than men do now. I am not sure, Virginia, whether you would be terribly impressed with the romances, “chick lit,” or even the self-absorbed “liberated” writings of Jong or Gilbert. Descriptions of subjective, ephemeral emotional rot are no less dry than descriptions of battles. Yes, women have lost their fascination. They are definitely more than equal to men today. Frankly, I would take Rosalind or Desdemona over any one of the sisters of the traveling pants. But what do I know? I’m just a guy.

She says that writers like Kipling are “to a woman incomprehensible.” Could be, but if more young men read Captains Courageous, boys would not be such wimps, and women would admire them more. Ironically she quotes a true male chauvinist of her day who writes “that when children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary.” To most men in the Western world that Aristotelian statement is sad and extreme. But today we frequently hear the opposite, that men are valued only as sperm donors (ask Neil Young). Men have become nearly as unnecessary as the children our liberated women abort.

O brave new world, Mrs. Woolf, that has such women in it!

The Lunatic Express – Review

Carl Hoffman. The Lunatic Express. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print.

How do you write exotic tales about the world in modern times? Purchas’ Pilgrimage, Melville’s Typee, even Burton’s or Lawrence’s adventures in Arabia could not be duplicated today. National Geographic has been published for over a century and even has its own cable TV network.

The answer is simple: Do something different and dangerous. In this case Carl Hoffman decides to travel on notoriously risky public transportation around the world: Cuban and Afghan air lines, boats on the Upper Amazon, crammed trains in India and Africa, unlicensed ferries in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Adventures all. In most cases he makes friends with natives who travel in groups and accept him as they look out for him. So we learn about Brazilian teenagers, organized crime in Mumbai, and anarchy in Africa.

These conveyances are dangerous because in order to make money and sill be affordable to the common people of those countries they have to take risks. Travel quickly. Overload. Remove extra items that might make things safer or more comfortable. Ignore the stink from the bathrooms or the roaches that come out at night. Ironically, the only conveyance that breaks down beyond immediate repair on his round-the-world journey is the Greyhound bus forty miles from his own home.

Every chapter begins with a news report about a disaster aboard one of those buses, trains, planes, or ferries he uses. But by traveling this way he meets the ordinary citizens of the land. One Bangladesh ferry has a first class section he stumbles onto. It is full of Europeans and Americans who are clean and eating good food. He envies them, but, nearly a year into his travels, he cannot identify with them any more. He has been on the Lunatic Express, as he calls it, too long.

There are some stark contrasts–Mumbai where the population density is over 17,000 per square mile to the Mongolian steppe where it is one for every two square miles; the heat of Africa, India, or Indonesia crammed on trains or boars to the crystal cold of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (technically safe and not really part of the Lunatic Express). But the biggest contrast for him is the sense of place that most of the people he meets have. Though they may have worked in Dubai for years, they still send most of what they earn to a small Indonesian island. They are from a village, a tribe, a neighborhood. They have family, extended family, neighbors, and folks from their hometown that are like family. They belong. And for brief times Hoffman belongs to them.

But then he moves on. What started out as an adventure becomes a kind of nostalgia in the literal sense–“a looking back sickness.” Where does this lone traveler surrounded by masses everywhere fit in? Even, what does it mean to be a father, a spouse, a son. He quotes E. M. Forster, admitting it is a cliche: “Only connect.” Yet, how does he connect?

Postscript. One personal note. Hoffman’s description of such public conveyances is not unlike my experience on a 20 hour trip on the Chinese railroad in the year 2000. People tried out their English on me, the “men’s room” was the doorway at the back of the car, and though it was hard to sleep, I knew I was safe and never alone. Interestingly, Hoffman’s experience on a Chinese train a mere nine years later was different. He was just another foreigner who could not speak the language, and the Chinese he saw were more conscious of sex (four inch heels and European tailored clothes) than I saw even in Shanghai and Beijing less than a decade earlier. If what Hoffman describes is generally true in China today, then perhaps I might become nostalgic, too: nostalgic for a more innocent time when the Chinese saw self-control as a virtue and overt interest in sex a sign of weakness.

The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln – Review

Helen Nicolay. The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln. 1906. Gutenberg.org. 21 Sep. 2008. E-book.

I owned a copy of this book when I was a child. I recall reading it, but I cannot say I remembered much specific about it. The copy I owned was the original edition, first published in 1906 but reprinted a number of times in subsequent years. It had been in the family for a long time. I think originally it had belonged either to my grandfather or to a great uncle. I noticed the book’s listing on Gutenberg.org recently and a combination of nostalgia and interest in the Civil War moved me to download it to my e-book reader.

I actually did recall that the book does devote most of its text to Lincoln’s life before he was president. It is primarily a character study with many quotations from Mr. Lincoln, some famous, some less so. The author was the daughter of a man who worked for Lincoln, so she has quotations and stories from many people who knew him.

One quotation I liked: “[I]f in your judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation rather than…consent to be a knave.” Even in the 1830s lawyers had a certain reputation.

Although the book focuses more on Lincoln’s life than the Civil War, it does describe his role in the war. One of the more pointed quotations from the war describes Lincoln’s frustration at General McClellan’s reluctance to fight. When asked what the Army of the Potomac was, Lincoln replied, “It is McClellan’s bodyguard.”

One of the strongest points of the book is the way it details the differences between Lincoln and Douglas. Indeed, many of the same principles, if not the same issue, are still with us today. It showed how Lincoln was willing to give up his own ambition for principle and for the good of the country. In the 1858 senatorial debates, Lincoln asked Douglas whether citizens of a territory could vote to prohibit slavery before the territory became a state. If Douglas said, “No,” he would please the Southern Democrats, but would deny his own beliefs on states’ rights and lose support of many Northern “free soil” Democrats. If he said, “Yes,” he would lose any national support from the South. Lincoln’s aides warned him that if he asked this question, Douglas would answer, “Yes,” and that would guarantee Douglas would get the senate seat. Lincoln replied presciently that if Douglas answers, “Yes,” he would never be elected president, and that was far more important if slavery were ever to be abolished.

Today this book would be considered a Young Adult book (grades 5 or 6 through 8 or 9). It was called The Boys’ Life because Lincoln was seen by the author and publisher as a male role model. That is still true today, but it surely would have a different title if published today. Girls would find it just as informative and inspiring.

One Thing You Can’t Do in Heaven – Review

Mark Cahill. One Thing You Can’t Do in Heaven. 5th ed. Rockwall TX: Biblical Discipleship Pub., 2011. Print

So what is the one thing you can’t do in Heaven? Tell others about Jesus. If you are in Heaven, you already know about Him.

So this is a very practical and entertaining book to encourage Christian believers to tell others about Jesus. Chapter titles suggest the book’s approach: “Winning, Winning, Winning,” “Excuses, Excuses,” and “If They’re Breathing, They Need Jesus.”

Cahill argues that telling others about Jesus is a “win-win-win” situation. If they accept Jesus, that is a win. If you give them something they are going to seriously think about, that is a win. Even if they reject your message, that is a win, too because the Bible says you are blessed (see Luke 6:22,23) because they rejected Jesus, too.

Cahill is an experienced evangelist. Stories of his personal experiences of telling others about Jesus comprise a significant part of the book. Most of his stories are not about formal preaching situations, but rather encounters with people in public places like malls, restaurants, and airplanes.

One interesting note for the general reader is that Cahill played on the Auburn University basketball team with future NBA star Charles Barkley. He shares some of his experiences with Barkley, Barkley’s family, and other NBA players. He shares potentially tragic conversation he had with one of them, a man who had a remarkably vivid vision of Hell. In his own words, it was not a dream but the most real thing he had ever seen.

Cahill asked him, “[D]o you know what it takes to get to Heaven?”

The man answered, “Committing my heart and my life to Jesus Christ.”

When Cahill asked him if he were ready to do that, he replied, “No…I like the things of the world more than the things of God.”

Then Cahill asked him, “Do you realize that you will have no excuse when you stand in front of God on Judgment Day?”

He replied, “Yes, I know.”

Sobering.

(Note: If you are skeptical of this experience, ask God to show you the truth about this. If God is real, and you are serious, you can expect an answer in a way that you will understand.)

Cahill emphasizes that sharing Christ with others is like doing many other things, the more you practice, the better you get at it. If you want to learn about doing this or getting better at it, check out One Thing You Can’t Do in Heaven.

The Good Soldier – Review

Ford Madox Ford. The Good Soldier. 1915. Gutenberg.org. 26 Nov. 2011. E-book.

I bit. The author of the book I recently read and reviewed, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, spoke so highly of The Good Soldier that I had to read it.

Was it worth it? Yes. Very clever and pointed symbolism. Like Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Keable’s Simon, Called Peter (a book mentioned in The Great Gatsby), it deals in part with the social interactions of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism a century ago.

Imagine a Henry James novel written in the first person. The narrator admits he rambles. He seems to spend a lot of time telling us what others told him, yet the reader can ask, “How much of this is hearsay? Why isn’t he more directly involved?”

The protective, behavior-oriented approach of the traditional Catholic Church perhaps keeps people from sin, but it also does their thinking for them. They have “mental health problems.” The Protestants were freer, but more inclined to get trapped into sins they cannot get away with. They are the people with “heart trouble.”

The narration is clever. The narrator tells us pretty early in the book that two of the main characters will die. Much of the novel describes the events that lead to that inevitable outcome. Yet, there is a real twist, a perhaps unforeseen surprise at the end as well.

The narrator is a decent storyteller, but he comes across as a real loser. He is the lone survivor in the story, but he is the person who has done virtually nothing. At first we believe he is a man of action, but he ends up more paralyzed than even the fictional Miles Coverdale, the wimpy narrator of Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.

Things happen. Psychology is analyzed. Things take time. Ford does echo of Henry James, with his social psychodrama and upper classes, but The Good Soldier has enough symbolism and universal themes that it makes one also think of another James, James Joyce, and some of his Dubliners stories, which also include recurring tales of Protestant-Catholic contrasts and symbols of paralysis.

Ungifted – Review

Gordon Korman. Ungifted. New York: Balzer and Bray, 2012. Print.

Gordon Korman has become my favorite Young Adult (YA) novelist. His protagonists are fairly typical young teens who find themselves in unusual situations. Son of the Mob is told by a kid who wants to lead a normal life when his father is a Mafia kingpin. Born to Rock is told by a somewhat low-key nerd who discovers his natural father is an aging rock musician who was a heavy-metal god in the eighties.

The protagonist of Ungifted is Donovan, a typically impulsive middle schooler who by an unusual coincidence ends up at his school district’s “gifted” school–except for the academic challenges, the school is a palatial reprieve from the run-down middle school he had attended. Donovan actually finds himself fitting in at the school because he sees things in a “normal” way–a perspective his sheltered and “well-lopsided” classmates miss.

His story is told my multiple narrators, adults and kids, and the varying points of view make for an entertaining mix.

The characters provide much of the fun: The bureaucratic superintendent whose goal is not to goof up, the snobby eight grader Abigail who is already trying to pad her college resume, or the socially clueless Noah with the 200 I.Q. who sees himself trapped in the gifted school the same way Catch-22‘s Yossarian finds himself trapped in the army.

Without giving away too much of the hilarious but believable plot, Donovan figures out a way to keep the gifted kids from going to summer school because the district forgot to schedule their mandated sex education. At the same time he tries to keep investigators from the district’s insurance company at bay and pass classes in subjects that he does not even begin to understand. Oh, a big fight breaks out at the gifted school’s first ever school dance, exotic uploads to YouTube gain many hits, and we are told of many other things that ring out “modern teen.” Korman milks the fish-out-of-water theme for another quick romp in the life of teens.

One part of the story hit really close to home for this reviewer. Donovan’s 26-year-old sister had moved back home to have her baby because her soldier husband was stationed in an overseas war zone. As I was reading Ungifted, our 25-year-old daughter had moved back with us to have her baby (she turned 26 two weeks later) while her husband was working in a foreign country with marginal health care. Fortunately, he was not fighting any battles, so he could join her in time to be present at the birth of our first grandchild. 🙂

The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex – Review

Owen Chase. The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex. Ed. Iola Haverstick and Betty Shepard. New York: Harcourt, 1999. Print.

This straightforward, unembellished tale of survival intensely records a tale not unlike that of the popular Unbroken or Skeletons on the Zahara.

The account was first published in 1822, less than a year after its author, the first mate of the Essex had returned to his home on Nantucket Island. The details are clearly fresh. While the actual sinking of the Essex only takes up a few pages, it is most unusual. A large sperm whale appears to deliberately attack the whaleship like a modern torpedo. The ship is beginning to break up when the whale, recovering from a brief stun after striking the ship, goes at it a second time for the final blow. In ten minutes the crew of twenty abandon ship and set out in the vessel’s three whaleboats.

Rationing hardtack and fresh water, eight of the men ultimately survive. They experience many of the mental and physical privations were read of in those other stories. The author gives credit to “a beneficent Creator, who had guided me through darkness, trouble, and death, once more to the bosom of my country and friends.” (88)

It did not take much more than an hour to read this book, and it was worth it. The afterword by the editors is an epilogue telling what happened to each of the survivors, but, perhaps more significantly, telling how Herman Melville while on the whaler Acushnet in the Pacific Ocean in 1841 met with Captain Chase’s son William who told him his father’s story and lent him a copy of this book. “‘The reading of this wondrous story,’ Melville noted, ‘upon the landless sea and close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me.'” (100)

And so we find the facts that helped inspire what it arguably the greatest American novel. And even if you felt like you had to slog through Moby Dick, The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is a quick voyage with following seas all the way.

How to Real Literature Like a Professor – Review

Thomas C. Foster. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Harper, 2003. Print.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a challenging but lighthearted look at literature by one of its lovers. The enthusiasm for the written word comes through. Written with a light enough touch to admit that some interpretations of literature seem pretty far-fetched. To carry the idea farther, Foster would say that it depends on where you fetch the interpretation from.

Short chapters build a foundation of the arts for us: Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and folk tales. He unveils the mystery of symbols for most readers. And he kindles the desire in the reader to check out at least some of the works he mentions, or perhaps take another look.

Some themes may make some readers uncomfortable, but the book shows that if those themes are handled intelligently, the works can be worth reading. Some works about politics are hamhanded propaganda. Some works dealing with sex are pornography. But worked into a great story, such things add significance to what is going on. And some things like seasons, roads, and rivers have a universal relevance. It is good to be reminded of those things.

I have been teaching English for most of my adult life. I admit I was not unfamiliar with many of his interpretations. A week before reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, a student asked if nationalism was an element of romanticism, how was Poe nationalistic? I explained how “The Fall of the House of Usher” illustrated the decadence of Eurasian aristocratic systems. There was my explanation almost word for word in Foster’s book. Still, reading the book made me want to read or re-read some works he mentions. I have already read The Good Soldier from Gutenberg.org.

Without going into great detail about the book, the author is excited about reading, and that excitement is contagious. Sure, the book may help you figure out your English teacher better, but it can let you see things and make connections that will add to your knowledge and your enjoyment–not just of literature but of life itself.

Hacking Harvard – Review

Robin Wasserman. Hacking Harvard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007. Print.

Hacking Harvard is a humorous and suspenseful teen caper novel. A group of geeks bets another group that they can get a notorious slacker into Harvard by computer chicanery. They live in the Boston area, and the story focuses on the three teens who are trying get Clay Parker in. Schwarz is a sixteen-year-old math genius and Harvard freshman who has a crush on an unattainable slut in his dorm. Max and Eric are best friends who drive each other crazy. Max rebels against his stereotypical “tiger parent” upbringing. Eric is more interested in MIT.

The narrative took a little getting used to. Part of the story is told in straight third person. Part is told in the first person by Alexandra (“Lex”), a girl who gets involved in the plot and is herself dying to get into Harvard.

The story is plot-driven. There are enough plot twists and humorous scenes to keep people going. It has potential for a decent caper film. Such a film would be an improvement over The Perfect Score, the caper film about a group of kids who hack the SAT.

What strikes the reader is the way that some of the characters agonize over getting into Harvard. When I was a senior in high school, most kids who applied to colleges applied to perhaps 3 schools that they thought would make a good match. I only know of one high school classmate who applied to 5 schools; he also was worried about Harvard because of a family legacy of going there. He did not get in, but he still has had a successfull career as an M.D.

Like the characters in Hacking Harvard, I attended high school in the Boston area, so Harvard was the place to go. Back then, Harvard Square was still cool–Hacking Harvard complains that it has been taken over by store chains, even the Harvard Coop, the school bookstore, is run by Barnes and Noble. I was told that I could probably get into Harvard if I wanted to go there. Mad magazine had a traffic sign parody that expressed my misgivings: Directions to Washington DC–Go to Harvard and turn left. But when I visited the school, I was sold on it. It would not have been the end of the world if I had not gotten in. I think I would have been happy at any of the 3 schools I applied to.

Ironically, the Harvard degree as name to drop has done little for my career. I went into the service out of college, but the only secondary school the military cares about is a military academy. Though I believe I have had a decent career as a teacher, I still sometimes feel I am pigeonholed. Even though I lived in a working class neighborhood most of my childhood, I am assumed to be some kind of liberal elitist. The only time the name helped was getting into a grad school–the bureaucratic admissions officer at the state teachers college suddenly perked up when I told her were I got my undergraduate degree.

Now I am no way complaining about my Harvard experience. Putting up with student radicals I think helped me develop character to find a solid foundation for my beliefs. I majored in English at Harvard and now teach high school English. I know what colleges expect from high school grads. Many former students have said I have prepared them. That is my job. The Harvard name had nothing to do with that. The Harvard education did.

Back to the book. Each chapter begins with an epigram giving college admissions advice. Besides the entertaining plot, the story does have a somewhat balanced view of college admissions. Don’t freak out. Look for a good match. For that, I would recommend the story to anyone sweating about college admissions.

Note: It this were a film, it would probably be rated PG-13 for language.