The bestselling author, Donna VanLiere, displays not only her gift for weaving heart-warming stories, but also her genuine southern manner and accent as the reader of her latest audio book, The Good Dream. This novel tells the story of Ivorie Walker, the over thirty, unmarried “old maid” of Morgan Hill. Six months after her momma’s death, Ivorie still struggles to cope, but for the first time in a long while she has a gentleman caller that gets her oven cooking.
The life that slowly feels like it might be coming together is tilted off kilter when Ivorie catches a feral, mute boy from the hills in her garden. The unlikely (and therefore gossip-worthy) relationship forces Ivorie to make decisions that may threaten both her and the boy’s lives.
Ivorie faces these rebukes and threats, as well as financial uncertainty, as she resolves to take the boy in, attempts to right the wrongs done to him, and give him back his voice. If she can overcome the challenges building up around her, Ivorie just might find that the boy has the potential to heal her wounds and put to rest a regret her momma was haunted by all the way to the grave.
This cute and sentimental story had a number of things working in its favor: a decent plot, touching moments, people helping people, strong characters, and realistic relationships. However, I felt like the shortcomings rivaled the strengths of The Good Dream. Granted that I’m more than likely not the marketed reader for this novel, I found that overall the tension and resolution fall a little short, and everything wraps up like a pair of Christmas shoes at the end to make a quaint present.
VanLiere has a gift for story telling, and The Good Dream proudly displays moments of her genius from her changing viewpoints at the different levels of cognition, to descriptions of daily country living during the early 1950s. But between some of the finer Tennessee colloquialisms and the seeming hours of the audio book in which the boy is learning to read and write (I agree reading is important and it is awesome that Ivorie was able to take in an abused eight year old in and teach him to read) I lost some of the forward momentum that the story was building. Many of the characters undertake an inner journey, but I felt the depth of their changes when all was said and done, failed to pluck at my heartstrings.
Besides the occasional shouting of the word “shit” and the mention of anal rape, I would say that this story would be decent for a family trip: mothers can probably imagine themselves in Ivorie’s place; kids might like when the boy plays with Sally, Ivorie’s dog, or the neighbors (an assortment of mini characters); and dad, well if its anything like my family trips, he’ll be happy for seven and a half semi-quiet hours (love you dad).
I have no doubt that VanLiere will see continued success with her novels and audio books, but The Good Dream left me with mixed feelings.
Why Does the World Exist? is a book of contemplation that at times causes illumination and at other times causes irritation. But in either case the suppleness and elegance of Jim Holt’s prose causes nothing but reading pleasure.
The book is well subtitled “An Existential Detective Story,” for like any good detective story it moves with the proper pace to keep you on board; it provides atmospheres and landscapes that put you into the scene; it creates interesting characters, and it offers up a rather large puzzle to be solved. The problem is, it is a puzzle not only hard to solve, but which may be impossible to solve, although Holt believes that he may have solved it (his solution depends on the universe coming into existence as a mediocrity, or something like that).
Unlike a mundane detective story there are no guilty parties—except maybe for those who are guilty of twisting your head into knots. Being an existential detective story, it confronts you with many musings considered deep by some and silly by others; it puts a plethora of questions in your head or draws out of you only one simple one: Why are people wasting their time with this “mystery”?
The title is a simplified version of the “deep” question Holt is investigating here, Why is there something instead of nothing? To get at the answer Holt, like any good detective, does the necessary legwork, prowling the mean streets of philosophical meditations and scientific hypotheses, wearing down shoe leather in a number of locations, including Stanford University in California; The University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania; Oxford University in England; the University of Texas; the West coast of Canada; back to Oxford; that famous intellectual center, Manhattan—and a couple of stops off for mental refreshment at the Café de Flore in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre used to hang out.
In this peripatetic quest for the answer to his deep question, Holt’s one unscheduled stop is back home to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to attend to the death of his mother, and where the abstract question that he has been pursuing suddenly becomes a concrete reality when he witnesses the “...infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness.”
In reporting on both his geographical and philosophical travels Holt does a fine job portraying the intellectual essences of the thinkers he encounters, such well-regarded men as Russian physicist Andrei Linde, philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne, British physicist David Deutch, American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg, Oxford’s emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Roger Penrose, speculative cosmologist John Leslie, English philosopher Derek Parfit (Holt’s hero, if the book has one), and even the late American novelist John Updike.
Holt also travels into the past to bring in ideas from David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Leibniz and Heidegger, and even reaches back to Plato, who sort of started the philosophical quest to understand Why existence? And who, despite 2500 years having elapsed, still seems to be a major figure in that quest.
(In putting together this list I noticed that there is not one woman on it, either historical or contemporary. One has to pause to wonder why. The imp in me can’t help but suggest that possibly women see a question like Why is there something instead of nothing? as more grandiose than grand. Or possibly it’s just that men, until very recently, haven’t really given women the free time to muse as extravagantly as they do.)
In giving a fair hearing to all the thinkers he encounters, Holt makes as clear as possible to readers who might not be trained in philosophy or science such ideas as: The principle of sufficient reason; causa sui: the cause of itself; the Higgs Field; universally free logic; the Null World; the cosmological argument; the ontological argument; the principle of fecundity; various quantum physics views of existence including the many worlds view, the multiverse, the view the includes parallel universes; string theory; quantum tunneling, and—back to Plato again—the easily understood concept of Ideal Forms but with the modern twist that they are all mathematical.
You get a good grasp of what his thinkers are thinking about. Or, at least a good enough grasp to go, on occasion, “Oh, yes, I see,” and on other occasions, “That’s just crazy.”
Both reactions are not without their pleasures. Consistently throughout the book, when he brings up a thinker who was last mentioned several chapters back, Holt will quickly summarize that thinker’s basic position, allowing you to easily compare it with the position of the thinker he is at the moment writing about. He does this naturally and without any sense of redundancy. An elegant and simple technique that should be applied by more authors of such works.
At only 279 pages of text, Why Does the World Exist? is not a weighty tome. But the question persists, as I have hinted at: Is his subject a weighty subject? For Holt, a well-respected (as well he should be) writer on philosophy and science for such publications as The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books (and who lives, oddly enough, in New York), it obviously is.
He seems to feel that it is the deepest of questions, for if we can come to understand why the universe exists then maybe we can come to understand why we exist and what role we may or may not play in this universe. However after reading much of the philosophical speculations that Holt summarizes some readers might find themselves like Eliza Dolittle singing out in despair, Words! Words! Words!
For it often seems as if the play of these philosophies is nothing but the clever manipulations of words. All arguments between competing answers (or approaches to answers) to the question Why is there something instead of nothing? may, indeed, be nothing but arguments over semantics, not destined to lead to solid conclusions that can resolve the arguments. One man’s philosophical meat may be another man’s dunderheaded poison. And the twain—or the Platonic and Aristotelean —shall never meet.
It boils down to this: opinion, just opinion, no matter how deep in thought the philosopher has gone to come up with it. Holt, presumably happy to be called a philosopher himself, is not unaware of this and he gives much voice to the Oxford philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, an intensely atheistic thinker who considers the question Why is there something instead of nothing? to be not much more than a Mcguffin keeping us in quasi-religious suspense and allowing the religious a last refuge against science. Allowing, indeed, for the denigration of evidence-based knowledge by claiming that it cannot explain why we exist, therefore “revealed” or “reasoned out metaphysical” knowledge, whether it be of a God or of perfect Forms or of some other concept snatched from the ether, is our only recourse. But as Grünbaum and many scientists may well feel, the question Why is there something instead of nothing? may be no more profound and deep than the question What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Who you side with on whether Holt or Grünbaum, Why is there something instead of nothing? is a deep or silly question, and will depend on your, as William James put it, sentiments of rationality. If you are religious, metaphysical—or possibly that strange netherworld of thought, spiritual—you will side with Holt. If you have more trust in the scientific method than faith in theological or philosophical musings, you will side with Grünbaum.
But no matter what side you take, I highly recommend Why Does the World Exist? for Holt’s journey of inquiry is not only sincere it is so well rendered in words that you will find him an excellent traveling companion.
It’s an ominous word, evoking a dystopian society where the government spies on its citizens and subjects them to constant propaganda to control how they think and what they think about. A world of “newspeak,” “doublethink,” “thought police,” and “Big Brother”—a world no longer in the future, and not just because a reality game show series has been named after it.
Not a week goes by without at least one of these terms being used.
All these words come from a novel, 1984, and its author: George Orwell. 1984 and his allegorical fable, Animal Farm, have now sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author. Orwell has been declared the most influential political writer of the 20th century
Even more remarkable when you realize that he died in 1950 at the age of 46.
Most of us are familiar with these two books, even if we haven’t read them. The terms, the concepts, even the plots are all contemporary, even though they were written more than 60 years ago.
But we may be unfamiliar with George Orwell himself and this is the man and the writer to be discovered in George Orwell Diaries, which is excellently edited by Peter Davison to give you the context of all that Orwell writes about.
One of the foremost political writers of our own time, Christopher Hitchens, who among his many works authored Why Orwell Matters, provides the biographical, analytical and laudatory introduction—it is the last commissioned piece that Hitchens wrote before his death.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair and it is Blair that is carved on his headstone. The diaries cover the last two decades of his life, August 25, 1931—September 1949. And what momentous years they were. Orwell over those years was many things—a journalist, essayist, revolutionary soldier in the Spanish Civil War, radio writer and producer of propaganda for the BBC, newspaper editor, foreign correspondent, novelist, member of the Home Guard sworn to defend England from invading Nazi forces, as well as a husband, friend, and father.
The surprise of these diaries is the discovery of Orwell the farmer and naturalist—the George Orwell who wrote Animal Farm had a long and deep relationship with both human nature and animal husbandry.
The Diaries vary in style depending on what Orwell is doing with his life and what he needs the diaries for. The first two diaries in this volume, The Hop-Picking Diary and The Road to Wigan Pier Diary, are those of a young investigative journalist who is writing his observations to use as research for future articles and books.
Orwell loses both his middle-class accent and morals to live as an itinerant agricultural worker. Later he shares various lodgings with miners, and observes how ”the working man always feels himself the slave of a more or less mysterious authority.”
These pages are filled with Orwell’s keen impressions of people, places, and working conditions. Out of this comes an understanding, for the reader, of the resultant political attitudes and movements that arose in Great Britain—high unemployment and horrible working conditions led to anti-immigrant, anti-gipsy and anti-Semitic sentiments. It also led to the eventual rise of both unions and fascism – Orwell describes violent rallies by English fascists, policed by thugs in black shirts.
The writing in these diaries can be gorgeous—clean, clear-eyed, insightful prose, some of which he would later use almost verbatim.
“Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have every seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.”
Next, chronologically, should be Orwell’s diaries of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. These diaries, if they still exist, reside in Moscow, captured by the Communists as they invaded Barcelona in 1937.
Orwell, accompanied by his wife, Eileen, had originally gone over to Spain to cover the War but soon found himself compelled to join the Republicans in the fight against Franco. Shot in the throat, ill, he and Eileen had to live in hiding until the chance came to escape back to England. The diaries may no longer exist, but Orwell’s book on his experiences, Homage to Catalonia, is still available.
Back in Great Britain, Orwell simultaneously keeps two diaries, one domestic and one journalistic, which Davison presents intercalated. In the Domestic Diaries I & II, Orwell writes as a farmer and as a keen and curious observer of nature. There is some beautiful prose to be found here, but much of it also consists of pages and pages on eggs: how many hens laying how many eggs each day and what price he can get for them.
The other set of diaries contain Orwell’s commentary on the political world unfolding around him. He and Eileen leave the farm for a winter spent in Morocco in hopes that the warm weather will help him recover from his war wounds as well as one of the serious illnesses that plagued him all his life. But The Morocco Diary contains nothing about his health or pain. It is instead filled with his consideration of the peoples in French and Spanish North Africa.
Just as he reacted to the poverty in his homeland, he surveys, with horror, the poverty around him in Morocco and the human degradation it causes, and what he assumes the eventual political ramifications will be from the disparity of wealth and poverty.
Orwell doesn’t lack compassion, but neither does he romanticize the people. He despises the begging, the mendicancy, he is sickened by the amount of blindness which he thinks is caused by the flies that seem to rest in people’s eyes as he walks through the bazaars. He talks to members of the French Foreign Legion, comments on the hostility towards the Moroccan Jews from both the Arabs and the Europeans, remarks upon the movement of multinational troops around him, and notes that unemployment in Germany has risen to 5 million.
Upon his return to England and the farm, Orwell begins his Lead Up to War Diary, and these are the entries of a man prepared to write on the war ahead that he sees as inevitable. Besides his recording of the various political movements and people of the day, the historical events taking place, his predictions of what he thinks will happen as well as what others think will happen; there are also newspaper clippings and odd minutiae – such as the number of rats estimated to live in England. One can see this all as material germinating in Orwell’s mind to eventually come forth as essays, novels, history.
The inevitable war does come, and Orwell and Eileen move back to London in the hopes to be of service to England as the Germans begin their bombardment of London. Orwell’s War-time Diary, if it were now, would be published as blog posts. And indeed they can be experienced that way on-line at The Orwell Prize website (http://theorwellprize.co.uk. .
On August 9, 2008 the website began blogging Orwell’s diaries from 1938 in real time, 70 years to the day since each entry was originally written, and they are still online to be read.) This Diary is history made immediate—the uncertainty of events as they happen around you. And it is exciting to read, not only because Orwell is such a brilliant observer and his prose super , but also because he is in the thick of things. He is a member of the Home Guard (as useless and frustrating as he finds that to be, led by the “blimps,” old soldiers from WWI and confounded by bureaucracy), living in London through the Blitz, working for the BBC, attuned to what is happening in local government and abroad.
There is a gap of several years before the next group of diaries. Dubbed The Jura Diaries they cover the time period from May 1946 - May 1948 when Orwell had moved to the Scottish island of Jura, part of the Hebrides.
Davison fills in the life that has happened to Orwell—foreign correspondent; adopting a son; the death of his wife; the bombing of his flat; the writing, publishing and success of Animal Farm as well as his other essays; the slow work of the book that would become 1984. These are a return to his Domestic Diaries, and they are the observations of a man enmeshed in the natural world—goats, chickens, fishing, weather reports, his son’s birthday. The outlet for his political observations is not to be found now in a diary but as newspaper columns, essays, and novels.
The George Orwell Diaries will be indispensable to all those who admire and study George Orwell. They also serve as an intriguing introduction to those who know Orwell only by reputation, or perhaps who have heard of The Orwell Prize, awarded annually in Great Britain for political writing of outstanding quality. I am excited to have discovered, at this late date, this wonderful writer, and it will not be long before I pick up Homage to Catalonia and slip into history. The name of “Orwell” has a different connotation for me now. It is the name of the writer who sought to make political writing into an art and who sought to promote clarity and honesty in political writing. How ironic that his name has been turned into an adjective which means the opposite.
When Fred Beauford, editor of the Neworld Review, sent me Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, to review I was a happy camper. For ever since Miss Reynolds, our junior high school librarian, gave me I Married Adventure and After You, Marco Polo, I have been hooked on travel writing and especially that which describes travels into the barren desert terrains of the Sahara, Saudi Arabia, or Outer Mongolia. An inveterate arm-chair traveler, I lap up this kind of writing the way a kid laps up a dish of ice cream.
Just when I was afraid that all the 19th Century really good travel adventure stories had already been told along comes one about an explorer of whom I had never heard: Heinrich Barth. As important as the 19th Century African explorer as he was, he was overlooked by history—until the publication of this readable biography of him by American writer Steve Kemper.
Though German, in 1859 he joined a small British expedition into the unexplored regions of Islamic North and Central Africa, eventually reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu (in present-day Mali.) His 5 ½ year journey over 10,000 miles of country on foot and camel- or horse-back ranks among the greatest in the annals of exploration—from Tripoli south to Bornu in the Sudan and then west to the Niger River and Timbuktu, then reversing his course and returning east through the Islamic kingdoms of the Tuaregs, Fulani and others, then north again through the Sahara back to Tripoli.
A scientist through and through his object was to accumulate data concerning the countryside and its people and to study the myriad of languages spoken. Beyond that he hoped to increase Europe’s knowledge of North and Central Africa in order to open up trade among these nations.
Yet because of shifting politics, false preconceptions about Africa and his own thorny personality Barth fell through the cracks in history, and the general public didn’t hear about him, his epic journey or learn of his still-pertinent observations and his monumental five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa—he was never the subject of a book in English—until drawing on his journals, letters and then making his own journey in Barth’s footsteps, Steve Kemper wrote this extraordinary biography of this great explorer.
But more about that later…
When but a studious but taciturn young man, Barth failed to accumulate friends and influence—he was perhaps too intent on his studies. But, as an explorer the very qualities that prevented him from being popular made him succeed where others failed. He was steadfast in the face of adversity, self-reliant and resilient, and level-headed when others became embroiled in personality conflicts. His devotion to his discipline, to scientific observation and of leaving an accurate record of the data observed, his being adept in acquiring a workable knowledge of numerous foreign tongues with ease, and his patience, his infinite patience in the face of numerous deprivations—thirst, hunger, and illness—delays such as being held a virtual house hostage for sometimes months on end. He survived things that would have driven a lesser man to distraction and to dangerous conduct that could have cause the termination of his life. To be sure there was an element of luck involved, but the weight of his success can be attributed to these qualities, his ability to overcome the hardships he would encounter.
Barth’s journey was from 1850 through the better part of 1855—160 years ago. I couldn’t help but note how slow communications were then. It might take six month for a letter from the hinterland of north/central Africa to reach England, if it reached England at all. The initial conveyance was often tedious and precarious at a letter was given to desert travelers who then gave it to other travelers along the way until, at last, it reached Tripoli, where then it had to be conveyed to England on a ship. Some times native travelers saved it to use as a talisman against evil forces and instead of delivering it stuck it their turbans.
I couldn’t help but contrast this with the time when I was traveling in North Africa in 2004 and my wallet was pickpocketed at the bus station in Madrid. My companion and I traveled to Tangier before I could email my brother and ask him to please wire me some money. When we reached Fez several days later the money was available for me at the local post office—a hefty pile of Moroccan currency. Every town through which we traveled had Internet cafés where we could keep in touch with family and friends. I imagine that this is true now in the larger towns through which Barth traveled.
Of the many people Barth met along the way I would like to mention two: an Arab hustler by the name of Weled Ammer Walati, a scoundrel who wheeled and dealed his way across central Africa. When wise to his antics, Barth was forced to tolerate him because he needed his expertise to complete a leg of his journey.
The other man was someone of a much more sterling character, the Sheik of Timbuktu, Amad al-Bakkay al-Kunti. Barth had more rapport with al-Bakkay than with another other African whom he met on his journey. Al-Bakkay protected him from those who wanted to kill him, resisting the orders of the emir to turn him over or drive him from Timbuktu. Were it not for al-Bakkay Barth would not have survived.
How’s this for a tantalizing description of the fabled Timbuktu:
For centuries before Barth’s arrived, the word “Timbuktu” conjured magic in Europe. Timbuktu was gold, mystery, exotic isolation. Its geography position was unfixed, like a dream. Its geographic position was unfixed, like a dream’s. Accounts of it were few but enticing. In 1324 when Timbuktu belonged to the kingdom of Mali, Mali’s emperor Mansa Musa made a haj across Africa to Mecca. En route he passed through Cairo and into legend. His caravan of 60,000 included 12,000 slaves dressed in silk, 500 of whom walked with golden staffs. Eighty camels carried 300 pounds of gold each, which Musa spent lavishly. The fame of this spectacle circulated throughout Europe and the Middle East, and generated fabulous tales about golden cities somewhere in the heart of Africa.
Sad to say when Barth returned to England after his epic journey he was denied the honors he so richly deserved. The reason for this, as Mr. Kemper explains it, “Europe was at the cusp of the imperial age. Curiosity about Africa was hardening into certitude that the continent would benefit from European civilization and religion, by force if necessary. Islam was considered a dangerous and evil opponent of Christian values….British commentators has started proposing that blacks were helpless without white supervision, and that foreign lands populated by dark-skinned people were given by Providence as raw materials to be shaped by white civilization.” (Italic mine.)
Heinrich Barth directly opposed this chauvinistic attitude. His was much more in keeping with the egalitarianism endemic to Islam, that all men are brothers who have unalienable rights. He had proved that a rich network of fairly advanced civilizations occupied North/Central Africa. The volumes he published, the five volumes he wrote about his journey, were not, however, for public consumption, as readers vastly preferred David Livingstone’s more colorful Missionary Travels and the like to Barth’s meticulous and scientific record.
And so the contribution to our knowledge of Africa made by this man languished for some 160 years, until the pendulum of what is politically correct swung and imperialistic chauvinism could be decried for the arrogance it embodies.
A big thanks to Steve Kemper for writing A Labyrinth of Kingdoms and giving Heinrich Barth the position he so rightfully deserves.>
“Good,” is such a banal word. In our every day lexicon, it lands somewhere between an “A-” and a “B-“ and doesn’t really delineate anything about the descriptor. And yet, as attributed to Sargent Shriver, it applies in its inherent humility and lack of the spectacular. The word “good” is so apt here, as to elevate it – the very word itself – to heights of low key idolatry – possibly an oxymoronic observation, but you must read the book before making that judgment.
“Good” as attributed by his son, Mark, is better than “great.” “The great man is recognized for his civic achievements. The Good Man can be great in that arena too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk ... with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church, wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion.”
However, If you have a penchant for the surreal, you will know that somewhere in the ”sweet hereafter,” Sargent Shriver and Christopher Hitchens are duking it out over the “greatness of God,” and much as Hitchens might have been the ultimate debater, according to Mark Shriver, his dad wins hands down as a role model in touting the greatness of that deity. Among all else, his life was fueled by his love of God.
Sargent Shriver, known for having launched the Peace Corps, for being a major mover, along with his wife, of the world renowned Special Olympics, a Vice Presidential Candidate on the George Mc Govern ticket in 1972, U.S. Ambassador to France, a significant influence in the procurement of voting and civil rights for all Americans, the spouse of Eunice Kennedy (of the Kennedys) and the father of four sons and a daughter, died at the age of 95 in 2011, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. His son Mark pulled him out of the grave, figuratively, to re-examine the qualities that elicited “He was a good man,” almost as a mantra from so many people after his death.
Shriver lived by the trinity of faith, hope and love and his Catholicism with all of its concomitant rituals was paramount in his life. He was joyful and fun loving and his relationship with his wife and kids was straight from the idealized Cleaver family. Competitive only with himself, the man was so well balanced and his values so pure, that one wonders if he was real and if he had any faults.
The first Shrivers settled in Union Mills, Maryland in the 1700s and established a rich family heritage, a successful farm and a canning business. But Sarge’s father, a banker, was forced into bankruptcy during the depression and as Sarge told it, “when financial failure almost destroyed (my father’s) own sense of personal worth, my parents nonetheless gave me an unforgettable lesson in how to survive financial ruin with grace and courage and class.”
Several Shriver members, over millennia and decades, entered into politics. Sarge’s mother’s family was Catholic and Confederate and his father’s Union and Protestant. “His mother had taught him that the Catholic Church and the Shriver family were most important, followed closely by the Democratic Party.”
Certainly, Mark’s parents lived a fairy tale life, hobnobbing with world leaders, sports heroes, a church hierarchy, traveling all over the world, attending spectacular events and being involved in all manner of political dealings on the highest levels. And yet the simple daily game of catch with his kids, their frequent attendance at ball games, (he was a fanatic Orioles booster) their family picnics and meals and private times together, were more meaningful to Sarge than any of the hoopla of their glamorous lives.
If anything was a metaphor for how the elder Shriver led his life, it was Mark’s story about the time his brother Bobby began to cry when he was hurt playing football with his cousins in Hyannis Port. “Uncle Bobby was standing nearby and said, ‘Kennedys don’t cry!’ Dad heard him but didn’t look his way. Instead, he walked straight toward my brother and lifted him up. ‘Its okay, you can cry! You’re a Shriver.…’ Dad was a team player, (a) loyal political partner and family member, but he could separate his identity from the clan’s internal pressure to achieve greatness….”
The passages about his “loyal lieutenant,” Richard Franklin Ragsdale, “Rags” to all, “Top Man,” as described by Mark, were another giveaway into Sarge’s character and the depth of his capacity for friendship and humility.
And the notes and letters he took the time to write to his kids, for all kinds of occasions, never failing to tag them with warm assurances of his love, were the most precious of Sarge’s legacy to them. He wasn’t merely an articulator of all things good, he was a firm believer in “doing something about it.”
In the end, Mark describes his father’s dignified and sad descent into Alzheimer’s (“I’m doing the best I can with what God gave me,” he’d say) and the family that rallied to become “Love Givers,” rather than “Care Givers.”
That Mark chose a path other than Sarge’s beloved Peace Corps after graduation, and that Mark’s daughter Molly chatted up the goalie of her opposing team in a fierce competition, that brother Bobby was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana causing the paparazzi to swarm in front of their house in anticipation of reporting a delicious scandal -- none of these events caused Sarge to lose his cool, to withhold his love or to do other than have a calm life lesson discussion with each of the subjects.
Don’t look for great literary passages in this book. Some of it is somewhat redundant, but the subject carries it to “Goodness.” And there is no doubt that such a “Good Man” as Sargent Shriver, “is hard to find.”
Thomas H. Cook has published more than 25 novels since 1980. His genre is referred to in varied ways: Mystery. Suspense. Thrillers. In Cook’s case, it is all the above, with a strong dose of literary integrity and exquisite storytelling included.
In The Crime of Julian Wells, the reader is invited slowly and seductively into a narrative that veers away from the “Who done it?” aspect of so many mysteries, focusing instead on the “Why?” at the core of one man’s death.
The man at issue is named in the title of the novel. Julian Wells, found dead in a Montauk pond on Long Island, was a successful writer whose expatriate travels were not about running with the bulls or teaching ESL in China.
Instead, as we learn via the flashbacks of first-person narrator Philip Anders (whose profession as a literary critic elevates the language, ideas and texture of not just the dialogue in this book, but the descriptions and digressions as well), it was Julian Wells’ unique aim as a true-crime writer to visit as a great many places all over the world; specifically to report on crimes that involved an egregious amount of cruelty.
Julian Wells was a student of human depravity. “It was evil he was after,” the narrator remembers: “ . . . some core twist in the scheme of things.”
Although it appears that Wells’ death was a suicide, plain and simple, there is no stopping narrator Philip Anders from relentlessly asking questions. For starters: Why would a man with success and high spirits and so much to look forward to suddenly end his life?
Other questions abound. And Julian Wells’ sister, Loretta, emerges as a major character as she shares ideas, ruminations and suspicions with the narrator. Eventually, the mounting questions about the secret life of Julian Wells will cause the narrator and his questions and revelations to emerge as he travels three continents.
As the novel develops, the passage of time in this story harks back over a span of four decades, which are deftly alluded to and summarized. There are no dead ends.
The “Rosebud” element in this novel (or “the MacGuffin” as filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock used to call his narrative hooks) turns out to be the dedication that Julian Wells wrote for the first of his true-crime chronicles: “For Philip, sole witness to my crime.”
All along, it was assumed this story’s narrator, Philip Anders, that Julian Wells meant that as an inside joke. Saying, in effect, that choosing to write about heinous criminals was akin to “[a] crime,” because it meant immersion in a genre that a literary critic like Philip was likely to disdain. Now, in the aftermath of Wells’ death, it hints at a darker, more dangerous and decidedly murky private life.
And so, the story is a peel-the-onion series of gradual revelations that inevitably force Philip Anders to wholly reassess the life led by Julian Wells; and thus also to reevaluate his own existence.
Thomas H. Cook writes with lyrical precision and evocative imagery. His ear for dialogue is superlative and his winning of an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America back in 1996 attests to his mastery of this genre.
Early in the novel, the narrator confesses: “ . . . something in my latest exchange with Loretta had set me to considering Julian’s life in the way a detective might, as if he were a mystery whose disparate clues I was now trying to puzzle out. No, not a detective exactly, I decided, more like a writer seized by a mysterious purpose.”
At which point the reader has no choice but to yield, be swept along, and finally to be grimly surprised.
(M. J. Moore is at work on an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.)