Reviews by Author: D-F
Antonio Damasio's Descarte's Error
Damasio opens with the intriguing historical case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker whose frontal lobe was destroyed in an explosion by a steel-tamping tool. Gage changed from a quiet, compliant worker to a cursing adventure seeker who expatriated to South America to work as a cowboy then repatriated to San Francisco to continue as a rowdy. Damasio studies quite a few other cases, his point in these chapters being that body and spirit are not the separate entities that Descartes conjectured. In the middle chapters, Damasio—a noted neurologist—furthers his case with examples of patients whose various physical damage or diseases left their logical skills completely intact, while wrecking their life skills. Damasio theorizes that emotions—that maligned facet of humans—is not only intricate but indispensable in our lives. Lastly, Damasio theorizes that our body itself is an intricate part of our decision-making process, that it offers indispensible feedback that allows us to make decisions quickly rather than roiling about in loops of logical choices and their consequences. Damasio ends with his own theories of consciousness, a sort of ever-renewing steady-state between the body and the areas of the brain. This is not the easiest book around to read, for the physiology and logic combine intricately. It is, however, eye-opening and challenging.
Robertson Davies' The Lyre of Orpheus
Three and a half stars. Oddball plot-makers A fun comedy with nearly meta-fictional qualities given off-stage comments by E. T. A. Hoffman, the historical romantic fiction writer whose fragmentary studies for his planned opera offer the subject matter and the spine for this novel. If you’re new to Davies, go back and read The Rebel Angels, as that novel contains almost all the same characters as this one. Davies is good at inserting oddball characters who move his plot along—in The Rebel Angels, it was Parlabane, a renegade homosexual monk and murderer—and in this novel we have young Schnakenburg who is finishing her dissertation in musical orchestration, plus her erstwhile mentor Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. The two of them become lovers, and their love seems to prompt Schnak toward working wonders with the bare outlines of the Hoffmann opera, entitled Arthur of Britain, the Magnanimous Cuckold. Some fun and some not-so fun plot twists make this novel a treat.
Irvin Faust's The Republic of Suffering
4 of 5 stars If you're going to read one book about the American Civil War, this should be it. Hell, if you're going to read one book about ANY war, this should be it, for it reveals war’s true business: death and suffering. I picked this book up on my visit to Shiloh Park. Shiloh was the first battle in The American Civil War that hit both South and North with hard reality. The death toll for both sides was in the thousands, and it was clear the war wouldn’t be “over by Christmas” as both sides thought. Faust has neatly divided his chapters into topics that are at once isolated and connected: “Dying,” “Killing,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Realizing,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” and “Numbering.” The chapter on dying, for instance, discusses how the concept of a “good death,” became prominent during this war. A good death would be a brave one, of course. It would allow for closure in the sense of a last letter to kinfolk. It would allow for burial of the body in a marked grave. Good deaths were rare, unfortunately. This chapter impacts the later chapters of “Burying” and “Believing and Doubting.” Much as World War I impacted the continent’s attitude toward belief, the American Civil tried many believers in America. An interesting fact from the chapter “Accounting”—and this book holds many such interesting if sad facts—is that remains of unburied soldiers were being discovered as late as seventeen years ago, in 1996. So much for a good death. And so much, one might think, for a “good” war.
Joe Formichella's Here's To You, Jackie Robinson
Full-Count Tension X number of people will read Joe Formichella’s Here’s to You, Jackie Robinson because it is about baseball. And Y number of people will read it because its subtitle connects it to Mobile: The Legend of the Prichard Mohawks. But—to belabor the high school math—X plus Y cubed number of people shouldread this book because it offers a highly empathetic view of bravery and good humor in the face of poverty, racial oppression—in face of the general state of human affairs. Formichella, amazingly, has woven the story of baseball, especially as it concerns black Americans, into the story of two men, one single-handedly facing racism from the postwar late 40’s through most of the so-called sleepy 50’s, the other leading Mobile area black boys, “little bitty babies,” into a meaningful life during that latter time into the early 60’s, leading them despite their economic impoverishment and despite the racism surrounding them. Over and again, we see Jackie Robinson sacrificing and practicing Gandhian non-resistance well before Martin Luther King, Jr. taught it; we see him smoldering quietly as players and fans call him “snowflake” and “nigger” and threaten his life to the extent that the FBI covered several games. And in one special instance we see Mr. Jesse Norwood, arms crossed, back down a white Mississippi sheriff. The man, acting as umpire, had been flagrantly miscalling a game against the young Mohawks while they played local white adults. One of the players nicknamed Candyman remembers that day and says, “Before we knew it, they had ten patrol cars at the ballpark.” Another teammate chimes in, “jabbing the tip of one finger into the tabletop”: “ ‘And Mr. Jesse Norwood did not budge one, damn inch.’” Instead, the sheriff backed down, called the game correctly, and the “itty bitty babies” from Mobile went on to win.
Formichella’s weaving and his astute empathy make this book much more than a book about baseball. Like any good historian, he knows when to focus on the drama of the moment, and when to offer facts: “Statistics and stories. When there isn’t a particular number, of home runs or games played or innings pitched . . . there is an annotative tale explicating the number. . . .” Just so, Formichella relates the history of baseball, the history of American blacks, and then focuses on Robinson or Norwood or one of the many Mohawk games to illustrate, lovingly, the point being made. At the end of the sixth chapter, which has discussed the place of religious faith in the black movement to fight racism, we read of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking of faith directly before his assassination, of Jackie Robinson addressing the NAACP in Detroit, and of Jesse Norwood emphasizing to his team of adolescents the importance of sacrifice. And this is how Formichella shines, for he closes the chapter by returning into the meeting room with the old Mohawk players who have been reliving past glories and sacrifices. They look to Jesse Norwood’s son, “realizing, perhaps, that their sacrifice paled in the context of the discussion. . . . It’s as if, recalling the man who orchestrated the endeavor, they considered the sacrifices he’d endured, and then the sacrifices of his son, who had to share his father with scores of other children and men, had to compete for his time.” It’s an especially rich, an especially singular insight that Formichella offers.
A book such as this could be unbearably dark, touching as it does on death threats, the murder of black GI’s (Jackie Robinson was in the Army), and countless racist insults. But with the same grace that he moves from raw historical details into an anecdote, the author moves from tragedy and near tragedy into the comic, and by doing so follows every successful work of art by “creating certain undeniable mythological proportions.” Candyman, for instance, when he was becoming too old to compete on the field, was appointed team president by Mr. Jesse and was given a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order.Candyman dutifully read the book and soon enough booted Mr. Jesse out of a meeting. “But this is my team,” Jesse Norwood protested. It didn’t matter, and Robert’s Ruleswas followed. That same Candyman remembers a young pitcher named Lomax, “Shoe” Lomax because he had to borrow playing shoes from an uncle. Shoe was “a gen-u-ine whirling dervish” Candyman explains, and sometimes the young pitcher would get so wound up with a throw that his oversized shoe would fly off the mound into the playing field. Formichella’s prose, his rendering of the men and struggles involved, his deft movement from tragic to comic, all offer a complete pleasure in reading—whether one is a baseball fan or not, as I found out.
Joe Formichella's Murder Creek: The ‘Unfortunate’ Incident of Annie Jean Barnes
4 of 5 stars 286 pages. Joe Formichella (Twilight Unlimited; Here’s to You, Jackie Robinson) typically fills his non-fiction with the narrative pull of fiction, and his non-fiction investigation Murder Creek is no exception. From the opening two pages—an imaginary closing argument delivered by an imaginary prosecutor in the “unfortunate” murder of Annie Jean Barnes—to the book’s end, the reader is impelled with the tracking of this forty-year-old mystery. And track it the author does, interviewing witnesses willing and unwilling, relatives of the primary suspect (if such a word can even be used in a case that never made it past a grand jury inquiry), relatives of the victim (such a word can most certainly be used), lawyers and law enforcement officials at both local and state levels, and forensic specialists. And what tribulations Formichella underwent to obtain public records! Herein lies the rub, the counterpoint that the author uses throughout the—I nearly wrote novel—throughout his investigation. For just as he did in his gathered recollections of the Prichard Mohawks, Formichella elevates a local issue into something much larger. In the case of the Mohawks, it was the ongoing battle of racism that infiltrated professional and semi-professional baseball. In the case of the “unfortunate” incident of Anne Barnes, it is the pervasive and evidently ongoing push against impoverished Alabamians as evinced by the gargantuan and tax-oppressive state constitution. Formichella, with help from generous quotes from Wayne Flynt’s Alabama in the TwentiethCentury and theOfficial Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama, uses the history of conglomerate and baron trader control of Alabama’s politics to mirror what went on locally in the Barnes’ case—a case that never became a case, because as her attending physician reportedly told her mourning family members, “you’ll never know how much money was spent” in making sure the case didn’t materialize.
Formichella’s writing is easeful and enjoyable. Here’s his opening look at Brewton from an approaching highway lined with pines: “An occasional trunk is snapped halfway up and folded over on itself, like a nearly closed switchblade, the tuft of needles at what was the crown gone brown.” As does any good mystery writer, Formichella knows how to create mood. And he also knows how to end chapters with an absolutely eye-opening hook to carry the reader on. One such chapter’s ending that sticks out for me comes halfway through the book when the author at last gets to interview the son of the doctor who was having an affair with Barnes and who would have surely served as the main murder suspect, had the case ever made it to court. “ ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute,’ he [the son] stopped me, leaning over the table. ‘You really think she was still alive when they found her at the cabin.’” Well, yes, up until now, all testimony has indicated such, has indicated that she died in the Brewton hospital (whose medical records were burned in a mysterious ‘fire’ that no one in Brewton can ever remember occurring).
And that revelation just skims the surface of contradicting testimony coming from everyone involved—and I’m sure author Joe Formichella must have been constantly shaking his head, because everyone means just that: from very close relatives to the victim to law enforcement officials at all levels.
If you want a mystery that twines and doubles back, if you want rich anecdotes about Alabama’s history from pre-constitution days onward (“Railroad Bill,” you may have heard the song, but did you know that he was a Robin Hood bandit killed and displayed on a flatcar all up and down a railroad line in Alabama?), if you want all this, Murder Creekis the book for you.
Carlos Fuentes' Vlad
3 stars. An update of Dracula, with the obligatory, “I don’t drink . . . wine” line. I’ve got to say that I expected more in general of this novel. Though there are creepy moments, about four full pages of second-hand gore—by second-hand I mean “historical” in relating Vlad’s origins—provide the bulk of horror. I found those pages and their gore gratuitous. As far as the allegory bit about consumerism that some reviewers found—I didn’t see it. Lawyers galore, yes, but lawyers gotta eat too, yes? I suppose one of the better creepy parts comes with the ending confrontation between daughter and father: “Daddy, I bet you didn’t know that squirrels’ teeth grow inside until they pierce the top of their heads.” His ten-year-old daughter then stuffs a live squirrel into her panties. This scene is followed rapidly by a confrontation between husband and wife, wherein the wife confesses that she enjoys the dangerous sex with Vlad and is bored with her husband. This conclusion is mostly fine. The idea of God being “unfinished” like a child is also intriguing. For me, though, it was too little, too late. The novel’s overall problem lies in its overall tone. While there are creepy parts, as mentioned, these parts are not pervasive enough to be atmospheric, much less build. And while the narrator is a naïve doofus, he is not exaggerated enough to form a comic or allegoric platform for the novel. Lastly, while there are fine philosophical and psychological insights, these do not appear with the frequency nor the intensity to involve a reader’s intellectual commitment. Alas.