Category Archives: book reviews

September 15, 2013, 11:29 am

Death In A College Town: Jeff and Val Butler’s Last Class

Katy Butler, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (New York: Scribner’s, 2013). 320 pp.  $25.00 HB. $11.04 Kindle.


Jeff and Val Butler in Middletown, CT.

I used to think about what tattoo would be good to get in middle age. After reading Katy Butler’s book, I know. I want DNR, medical shorthand for “do not resuscitate,” in red Times New Roman, right over my heart.

I became alerted to Knocking on Heaven’s Door back in 2010 when Butler was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. ”What Broke My Father’s Heart” eventually won the Science in Society award from the National Association of Science Writers. It wasn’t far into this story about how the needless installation of a pacemaker destroyed her father’s dignity, her mother’s health, and the end of her parents’…

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May 6, 2013, 10:26 am

Where Are the Women At The New York Review of Books?

nyrb052313_png_230x1292_q85One of the paradoxes of being a female intellectual in my generation is that we grew up dreaming about being part of a literary and academic establishment that did not include people like us. This is, of course, doubly true for lesbians and women of color. My life history is informed by what is, and what used to be: sometimes the two collide. These collisions usually occur when I revisit the literary institutions that have shaped my aspirations and career since the 1960s.

My perspective on publishing is a comparatively long one. I have been a continuous subscriber to publications like The NationThe New Yorker and  The New York Review of Books since I was a teenager. When, as a young person, I imagined myself a writer, I imagined myself writing for those publications despite the fact that they were almost entirely written by men. Since feminism was only beginning to make an…

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August 13, 2012, 12:15 pm

American Bromance: Paul Ryan, the Tea Party and the Recent History of Political Conservatism

Romney and Ryan: “I’ve got the money, honey, but you’ve got the brains.”

I felt so lucky to have read Ronald Formisano’s The Tea Party: A Brief History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), since those of us who receive smartphone pushes from woke up Saturday to a GOP conservative bromance of epic proportions. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, had at last decided on a running mate: it’s the cute little brother with a big mind, Paul Ryan.

As Yale political scientist Chris Lebron said on Facebook, “The most striking thing about Romney’s VP pick (and indeed Romney’s own candidacy) is not the nature of Ryan’s politics but the fact that it illustrates the GOP’s continued faith in, reliance upon, and commitment to the authority of white men. It’s 2012:…

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April 26, 2012, 2:42 pm

Histories of Kennedy Love: A Book Review

JFK and JFK, Jr. in the Oval Office (AP Photo/Look Magazine, Stanley Tretick)

Christina Haag, Come to the Edge: A Memoir (New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011).

Mimi Alford, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath (New York: Random House, 2012).

It will be no surprise to even the uneducated reader that the Kennedy family occupies an entire cultural market niche all by itself.  The Library of Congress lists over 400 John F. Kennedy items in its holdings. You can add to this number: books by and about Bobby, Ted and the other siblings; about the generations that preceded the three political brothers; about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children (there are over 300 LOC items about John Jr. and 93 by and about the far more productive and well-educated…

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June 20, 2011, 9:20 pm

Mr. DeMille, He’s Ready For His Close-Up: Vito Russo And Gay Liberation

Michael Schiavi, Celluloid Activist:  The Life and Times Of Vito Russo (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).  361 pp. Index, illustrations.  $29.95 hardback.

It is June, otherwise known by Presidential proclamation as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, a time when major cities and resort towns around the country have parades and sell beer.  What we are celebrating, other than the success of GLBT entrepeneurship, is the Stonewall Riots.  An iconic event, it began on June 28 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York, following a raid on the Stonewall Inn, and continued on for days as roving groups of queers provoked, and resisted, the police.  This, it is said, was the birth of gay liberation, which is technically true.  Activists subsequently formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a group that made a definitive break with homophile politics.  For those of you who…

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April 27, 2011, 11:35 am

Love, Literature, and The Art Of Making A Life In Priscilla Gilman’s “The Anti-Romantic Child”

Priscilla Gilman’s new memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child:  A Story of Unexpected Joy (New York:  HarperCollins, 2011), is this week’s recommended reading.  It is mostly about Gilman’s struggle to help her son Benjamin overcome a set of developmental disabilities that make him sound quite charming and interesting — as well as a challenging child who gives intricate meaning to that imprecise phrase “special needs.”  While she gestures at specific diagnoses, she resists the comprehensive and categorical workup with which so many of my students arrive at college.  She also refuses medication, which seems to be the go-to solution for the vast majority of kids who see a neurologist nowadays, as it seems to affect Benj’s brain chemistry in dramatic and unhelpful ways.  Intensive therapy, however, helps, and that story is going to be very instructive and encouraging for parents who are finding …

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April 14, 2011, 1:49 pm

Should They Stay Or Should They Go? A Few Thoughts On Who Is “Supposed” To Be In College

I have been reading a variety of books and articles in the past year that question the utility of going to college at all, much less whether it matters in the course of a life whether a young person decides to go to a selective,  private college. If you are a famous actress, for example, it might not.  Yesterday, “Kaiser,” who blogs at CeleBitchy, mused about Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) and her decision to drop out of Brown, at least temporarily, because she holds herself to such high standards. According to the AP story Kaiser quotes:

Watson has always been studious. She enrolled to study liberal arts at Rhode Island’s Brown University in 2009. But being a movie star and an Ivy League student took its toll, and she says commuting back and forth to the U.S. left her stressed out. Ever the perfectionist, Watson couldn’t stand delivering a below-average performance, so she took…

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March 7, 2011, 6:02 pm

If You Are Considering Writing A Memoir About Your Childhood Sexual Abuse….

…Don’t.  At least, not unless you have a story to tell that pushes us beyond the horror of it all.

The Daily Mail, which reviewed Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger in the United Kingdom, says it is “shocking the literary world.” Why? Because Fragoso references her love for the man who abused her for fifteen years, and because it is so graphic about the sexual fantasies they shared that some critics call the book itself pornographic.  The NPR review, which suckered me into buying this ghastly memoir (oh had I only clicked “read more”) comes closer to why I am shocked by it:  it is such a poorly written book.  As Dan Koies writes delicately,

But it’s perilous to discuss Tiger, Tiger, because when an author asserts her moral right to reclaim her abuse and recast it as story, it’s easy to seem churlish when you wish that she were a better writer — or that she’d had a more careful editor….

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February 13, 2011, 5:39 pm

Deep Cleaning, And Other Cosmic Issues: A Review of “Clutter Busting”

Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (Novato, California:  New World Library, 2009).  219 pp. $13.95, paper.

One of the reasons that self-help books are so successful is that they introduce complex thinking to people who aren’t normally exposed to it, or who are made uncomfortable by it.  Conversely, self-help books introduce simple thinking to people who spend most of their time thinking, or at least acting, complexly.  The formula for a successful self-help book, as far as I can tell, is a title that invites the potential reader into the utopian possibility of relieving the stress of the modern condition, and simultaneously becoming modern in a far more successful way.

Take the slow food movement, as it has manifested itself in the United States.  Inspired by former commune resident, and now Chez Panisse chef, Alice Waters, slow food ideology argues that…

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August 12, 2010, 3:17 pm

What’s the Answer to Higher Education, Gertrude?” “Alice, What Is The Question?*

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It. New York: Times Books, 2010). 271 pp., index; $26.00 hardcover.

For those of you have aspirations to publish for a popular market, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s contribution to the contemporary national debate about higher education does a lot of things right. The title poses a question and answers it – enticing you into a text that proposes to tell you the details that link the two. It has been cannily released in what is normally a slack summer book season (in other words, after the Summer Reading List issues of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker; and right before these same publications announce what should be on your agenda for the fall.) Best of all, it is designed to freak out a…

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