The Reader
Bernhard Schlink
Carol B. Janeway, Translator

This one has the New York literary birds all a-twitter --- but for some of us, it's more like old fried egg.

The story is a familiar one: June and December --- June being a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, December being a lady trolley-car conductor (only in Germany!)

Turns out that Frau Schmitz is not only good at giving hot soapy nekkid baths, she worked for the SS during the War. Women prisoners, on a forced march from Cracow concentration camp, were herded into a church, which burned down under enemy fire. They were not allowed to escape. It all happened on Frau Trolley-car (Hanna's) call.

Michael Berg has now grown up and become a lawyer, and the readers (you and me), get to go through various wet love scenes together (Part I), then, the trial (Part II). There, we find out that Our Lady of the Bathmat was something else altogether. The Big Secret emerges: not only did Hanna possibly commit an act of mass murder, but she can't even read or write. Question: when the fire took place, how could she have been in charge if she couldn't write orders or reports? (Only in Germany!)

For those of us who grew up on Camus, Sartre, and Unamuno, it reeks of that pissed-off know-nothingism called Existentialism which we came to know and love in the 50's. (You remember Existentialism --- The Big Worry that it all may mean nothing, not even to the Divine?)

Part II of The Reader has that same air of human puzzlement and anger (on the part of the prosecution) and passivity (on the part of the defendant) that we saw in The Stranger. The Stranger. The Reader. Even the titles smell too much alike for us to pretend they aren't somehow mysteriously related.

Like all those Existentialist writers, Schlink is given to vague huffings and puffings which may (or may not) mean anything, like I can recognize that events back then were part of a life-long pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together --- I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decisions is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again, it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things that I have decided not to do...

As Larry of the Three Stooges would say, "Whaa-aaat?"

Of course, it's possible that The Reader is just too subtle for us. The young man got his bath, then, naturally, found that he not only loved being soaped and rinsed, he came to find what we used to call "Lung Yuve." (We are all poisoned by our First Love --- the narrator calls it "an infection"). Yes, there is the subtle point made, never emphasized, that this young man, himself Jewish, loved someone who --- in other places, other times, other circumstances --- would have cooked him up too.

The Reader tries hard to deal with all these paradoxes of love and war and guilt and youth, and it may work...or maybe it doesn't. If we could just get rid of all those dratted wordy, big-Pphilosophical passages, we could be able to follow the plot-line and say if it panned out or no.

In any event, we suspect the book has been taken up with such enthusiasm by the New York literary bushwhackers because they are busily searching for the new Camus, hoping he's to be found in Germany (of all places), in the sour ashes of WWII.

By-the-bye: the title refers to the fact that when they were still bath-water-and-soaping sweeties, Berg often read out loud to Hanna, long before he knew she was illiterate. One of the novels he read to her was...War and Peace. Get it?

Before the Beginning:
Our Universe and Others
Martin Rees

God knows what they have done to pop science by letting that Stephen Hawking loose on the gentry. Perhaps it was getting to be too much fun [see review of Thursday's Universe above] --- so some hopeless drab at Oxford or the University of California said, "We've got to tone things down --- get back to the nuts and bolts of scientific writing. Get people to be more serious, about time, and space."

So they manufacture this dull-bulb Hawking who, singlehandedly, in his drudge tome called A Brief History of Time, manages to make the gassy world of outer space tedious, tendentious, and --- in a word --- tiresome.

Despite that, everyone decided he was a gas. Perhaps it was the picture of the mad scientist that got them; maybe it was the fact that he talks like someone out of Space Monsters --- so his torpid Reader's Digest of Outer Space, brief (but not, for some of us, brief enough), went to the top of the pile, and made a pile for him.

In its wake, scientists like Martin Rees grab onto the Hawking coattails for dear life (and dear royalties), creating their own lunky turgid style, with television headlines (OTHER PLANETS? LIFE? A COSMIC COINCIDENCE!), and bludgeon us to death with Facts and Figures, and what we used to call dangling --- eg, ill-used --- quotation marks: "heavy" elements, "Einstein figure," "planetesimals," "suitable" planets. Forget this black hole.

Spies, Black Ties, & Mango Pies:
Stories and Recipes from
CIA Families All Over the World

The Family Advisory Board of the CIA
(Community Communications)

Recipes from the CIA? Well --- why not? Even spooks have to eat. But we suspect the writers can't for a moment guess how very strange it all is: unworldly, really. They casually talk of demonstrations, upheavals, bombs and gunshots on the streets outside --- and inside the U.S.-sponsored fortress walls, it's Pozole and hot Chicha Morada, served to people standing about in elegant high-fashion clothes, clutching their wine-glasses and talking about the servants. The tone is light, the irony astounding --- and none of the contributors seems to get it. People are dying in the prisons of Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Domenican Republic because The Company is up to some hanky-panky, providing dirty tricks to do in variously democratically elected officials, and all they can think of is whether the Spicy Pancakes fell or got burned.

The recipes from the Middle East show no "Destabilizing Desserts" or "Mossadegh Mush-Cakes." Those from Central America give us no "Jacobo Arbenz Beaten Biscuits" nor "Juan Bosch Brownies," no "Desaparecido Frappés." From Cuba, we find no Bay-of-Pig-Pot-Pies, no "Steering-Wheel Surprise Empanizadas" --- certainly no exploding cigars with the desserts.

Tucked among the recipies like onions in the stew are supposedly funny stories in which the parents almost lose their CIA cover because the kids forget and blurt out something they shouldn't to the servants (CIA folks have to teach their children to lie, and lie to the servants, too). There are stories that hint of "political demonstrations" and "general instability" outside the $10,000-a-month apartments --- and then the writers go on to make a list of ingredients for Traditional Hungarian Stew and Lumpia. Very curious.

What next for this publisher --- Community Communications? How about Vlad the Impaler's Own Favorite Specialty Cuts? Or Pol Pot's Naturally Potted Meats for the Gourmet Prison Chef? Maybe Piroski and Me: the Best of Josef Stalin's Ample Larder or, why not? --- The Adolf Hitler Naturopathic Vegetarian Cookbook?

Birds of San Diego
Chris Fisher and Herbert Clarke
(Lone Pine)

Some of us are not very good at bird-watching. We tend to confuse bumblebees with Rufous Hummingbirds, and get excited when we see a Rock Dove which --- the authors inform us --- is the common street pigeon. For us (and our myopia, and our astigmatism) the Western Gull could just as well be the Loggerhead Shrike or the Bufflehead. God knows, we couldn't differentiate between Brewer's Blackbird and the Brown-Headed Cowbird, much less a Bushtit (or, for that matter, bird-shit).

Anyway, Birds of San Diego is a misnomer...there damn near no birds left in the area. The reason, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article, can be laid at the door, or on the plate, of the common house-cat. Each domestic cat --- even well-fed ones --- will capture and consume over a hundred birds a year. The feral ones do much worse.
With the feline population of southern California reaching 50,000,000 and growing steadily, we would guess the time will soon be upon us when the trees will be bare, except for garage-sale signs, and the only bird-songs we'll hear will be the shriek of the alarm on the neighbor's car as its being rifled at midnight.

Nearby Mexico sports a far richer bird life than southern California because there aren't that many domestic cats (most Mexicans don't like felines). Obnoxious birds --- sparrows and sea-gulls --- are not protected there. For some peculiar reason, it is a misdemeanor to cook up a sea-gull in California, whereas Mexicans regularly cook them up in little gull pies. Hell, the Indians (of India) impale those ghastly street sparrows on long picks, cook them entire on a coal fire, and chomp down on them --- feathers, eyeballs, brains and all. Yum!

Hired Pens
Professional Writers
in America's Golden Age of Print
Ronald Weber

The author informs us that the word "Grub Street" had origins in 17th Century England, being an actual street in Moorfields "much inhabited (according to Samuel Johnson) by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems..." (There's a touch of the usual Johnsonian irony there --- he had lived on that street for a time, and would characteristically refer to his poetry as "temporary.")

One writer said That which propels it is not Art but Advertising --- not Clio nor Calliope, but Circulation. Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first professionals who made a living, albeit a wretched one, in his job as a hack writer, submitting articles and stories to Godey's, Grahams, and the Dollar Newspaper. Another such writer, Albert Payson Terhune, started out at the Evening World, grinding out short fictions known as Oh-My-Gods! Only gradually did he graduate to the juvenalia of Lad and Lassie --- that made so many of us so long ago weepy over the plight of his loyal, loving, and quite sappy Collies.

Top writers in the early 1900s in New York City could command $3,000 - $5,000 a year for, as the author notes, "ten- to twelve-hour workdays and six-day weeks." Sinclair Lewis tried to be such a "grubstreet," but the tedium proved to be too much for him --- although before the success of Main Street he wrote bad fiction for Metropolitan, Woman's Home Companion, Hearst's and The Saturday Evening Post. He was remarkably successful , according to biographer Mark Schorer, making $34,000 in 1920.

Weber takes us up to the present, and one of the most interesting parts of Hired Pens deals with the original Fortune magazine. It was set up by Luce to introduce "Philistine businessmen" to writers they would not normally come in contact with: Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, James Gould Couzzens, and John Kenneth Galbraith. This leads one to wonder if it is still hack writing if the pay is good and the contributors observe certain standards, bias, and style --- which was not only the case with the early Fortune, but is true today with the likes of The New Yorker and Harpers.

Hired Pens is interesting enough if you have an affection for hack writing --- as the author obviously does --- although from time to time, he seems to indulge in a bit of hack writing himself in his effort to get his point across.

Extraordinary People with Disabilities
Deborah Kent and Kathryn A. Quinlan
(Children's Press)

Obviously we want to raise our children so they won't be going about yelling "cripple" at someone in a wheelchair or mocking their classmates that walk funny and run into things. Still, this volume smells of that rather irritating liberal dictum that demands that we be open and tolerant and loving of all diversity, no matter the price.

The sixty or so people described, starting with John Milton and ending with Jean Driscoll, are all very predictable. Stephen Hawking, John Hockenberry, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Roy Campanella. They even stuck in that testy (and bitter) Thaddeus Stevens, the vindictive wraith who saw to it that the just-defeated South got cruelly punished, sewing seeds of bitterness that live to this day. (The book's message seems to be, "It's OK to be an angry and goes with the territory, Jack.")

And then there is (ulp) Robert Dole, a particularly troublesome case for the disabled co-fraternity, because no one in public life practiced more high level denial (Can't you see, I'm perfectly normal) until the day came that he (or more probably, one of his Dole-for-President flacks) decided that, in order to win the election, he should play the War-Torn-Arm card. It was very cynical, and to name him as an "extraordinary people" is an extraordinarily silly choice.

And why, oh why, did they ignore some of the bright lights of the disability world? If they could stuff in Tom Cruise and Heather Whitestone, why not the man who set the stage for the Americans With Disabilities Act, Hugh Gallagher; or the brilliant editor of New Mobility, Barry Corbet? Where are Justin Dart, Mike Auberger, Susan Sygall, Mark O'Brien, John Kemp, Hobart Wilson, and Deng Pufang?

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