California Literary Review

Non-Fiction Reviews

Book Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

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October 30th, 2011

We learn that Quintana Roo was adopted, a beautiful precocious girl with hair “bleached by the beach sun” and an unearthly adult sensibility. At the age of 5, she called the state psychiatric facility to “find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy;” soon after, she called Twentieth-Century Fox to “find out what she needed to do to be a star.”

Book Review: Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck

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October 27th, 2011

In September 2007, Lou Ureneck, a 56-year-old journalism professor at Boston University, was hospitalized for atrial fibrillation, the exclamation point following a decade-long tailspin that included divorce, his mother’s death, financial failure, deepening depression, and a withering sense of purpose or connection. The week-long stay at Massachusetts General underscored what he’d already begun to realize: he needed to change.

Book Review: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow

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October 24th, 2011

So if she wasn’t pleasant, what was Pauline Kael? She was earthy; she was tough; she was not afraid of sex, drugs or Woody Allen. Cigarettes and bourbon were her loyal companions. The East Coast establishment and prissy editors her enemies. As Jerry Lewis said, she was a “dirty old broad.” But he also called her “the most qualified critic in the world. “ Both, I think, she would have perceived as compliments.

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

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October 13th, 2011

In this profound and spirited work, Pinker champions the civilizing process that, according to his detailed research, has enhanced the cause of peace, decreased the scale of violence and enabled peoples of widely separated nations and ethnic groups to realize their common humanity. Using a mass of scientific data and an intensive reading of history and current events, Pinker makes the case that Planet Earth is becoming a more Peaceable Kingdom.

Book Review: Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

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September 30th, 2011

Woolf spent much of her life trying to free herself from the grasp of the past, specifically the Victorian milieu of her childhood. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the prestigious Dictionary of National Biography and a personification of the Victorian pater familias. Woolf both loved and rebelled against him. She suffered a severe nervous breakdown following his death in 1904. Yet it was not until her father died, that she was able to liberate her emotions to the point where she could begin a serious career as a writer.

Book Review: Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer

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September 15th, 2011

Neumeyer responded with scholarly esprit, but he was hard put to equal his partner’s digressions. The works of Jorge Luis Borges, the wonders of Japanese court poetry, the inadequacy of The Yellow Submarine – having found a sympathetic spirit, Gorey let loose a torrent of opinions about anything in his path.

Book Review: Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

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August 19th, 2011

Carthage, however, was not merely conquered by Rome. As the title of Miles’ book asserts, Carthage was destroyed. In three brutal wars, Carthage’s military power was annihilated by the legions of the Roman Republic. The city was ransacked and burned, down to its foundations. The people of Carthage were massacred or enslaved. The literature of the city was put to the torch. Not a stone was left upon a stone.

Book Review: René Blum and the Ballets Russes by Judith Chazin-Bennahum

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July 11th, 2011

All of Blum’s many accomplishments were bracketed between the anti-Semitic turmoil of the Dreyfus Affair that tormented France from 1894 to 1904 and the Nazi-led Holocaust in which he perished. To his dying day, Blum thought of himself as a French patriot. Yet it was the complicity of French officials during the German occupation that set him on the road to Auschwitz.

Book Review: Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr

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July 6th, 2011

Except for a (thankfully) brief, unscientific use of Google metrics, Orr beautifully shares instances of why one might fall in love with poetry. He recounts his life-changing discovery of the poet Philip Larkin, and his experience of helping his father, a stroke victim, improve his speech through readings of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

Book Review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

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July 5th, 2011

But wherever it originated, the word conjures up an instant picture of young people in cheap sportswear, swigging alcopops, brandishing knives and selling each other drugs whilst getting their fifteen-year-old girlfriends pregnant. They are a favourite subject for the right-wing tabloids, and where the term “chav” is found, the words “feral”, “benefits” and “underclass” will often be somewhere in the vicinity, not to mention “lifestyles funded by your taxes!”

Book Review: Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds

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June 13th, 2011

The escalating one-upmanship led to some truly bizarre innovations, such as casting famous boxers in the lead roles. Reynolds described how Peter Jackson, a famous black boxer, figured into the entertainments: “Uncle Tom, between acts or just before dying, would momentarily trade his slave costume for boxing trunks and spar for three rounds with another actor before resuming his tragic role.”

Book Review: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

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May 31st, 2011

Place, in literature, is often the most complex of characters, boasting variable backdrops with tones and textures of every mood imaginable—windswept cliffs, checkered floors, twisted roads and rivers, cobwebbed attics, portentous slants of light and so on down the centuries.

Book Review: Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire by Robin Waterfield

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May 3rd, 2011

It did not take long before most of the Diadochi were gripped by a lust for power nearly as manic as had possessed Alexander. Ptolemy, however, showed a greater restraint. Though he launched several offensive campaigns, Ptolemy largely contented himself with ruling Egypt. Moreover, his policy decisions were marked by an astute blend of urban and economic development, along with encouraging the arts and sciences. Where Demetrius squandered vast sums on siege towers and Dreadnought-sized warships, Ptolemy built Alexandria into a cultural center whose brilliance eventually surpassed Athens.

Book Review: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

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April 4th, 2011

X’s short 21 chapters of informal prose mix the personal-poignant and social-pathetic. They illuminate the pathology of a multi-billion-dollar purely-American enterprise: the community college network snaking through 50 States. Bloated with the goodwill of the ingrained national optimism, it expresses our mania for pieces of paper guaranteeing employable skills supposedly learned from hundreds of pages of sociopsychological babble, the ink-tracks of text in thick books laying out techniques of “administration” by the numbers.

Book Review: In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip

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March 29th, 2011

On the last lap, Earnhardt crashed, dying shortly thereafter. The race winner, Michael Waltrip, was celebrating in Victory Lane when he found out that he had lost one of his best friends even as he achieved one of the biggest successes of his racing career. New York Times bestseller In the Blink of an Eye is the story of Waltrip’s journey of personal discovery as he dealt with this loss, as well as an account of how a guy from a small town in Kentucky ended up driving at the elite level in his chosen sport.

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