The Buffalo News - Books and Poetry Latest stories from The Buffalo News en-us Sun, 13 Jul 2014 13:40:05 -0400 Sun, 13 Jul 2014 13:40:05 -0400 <![CDATA[ An Italian-American finds two distinct cultures in his father’s homeland ]]>
By Joseph Luzzi

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

208 pages, $22

By Lee Coppola


The waiter in the Florence restaurant had a look of disgust when asked by the American patron, the grandson of Sicilian emigrants, about a certain dish familiar to him via his grandparents.

“That’s the South,” the waiter said, disdain dripping from his lips.

And that seems to be the theme of Joseph Luzzi’s decipher of a country with two distinct cultures, a theme that currently dominates news from the Middle East and for more than 150 years has dotted the landscape of the Yankee-Confederacy United States.

Luzzi writes from a personal perspective. The son of Italian immigrants from southern Italy’s Calabria Province, he became a college professor specializing in the art and culture of such Italian cities as Milan and Florence.

As a boy living in Rhode Island, he watched his family slaughter animals, cure meat, grow vegetables and fruit and make wine, all culinary routines brought from Calabria. As an adult, his studies made him an expert in Italian artists and authors. He ran his university’s study-abroad summer program and gave lectures and seminars on Dante.

“I feigned an easy relationship with Florence,” he writes, “as if it were some prestigious college I had studied in years ago and I kept going back to for summer reunions. In truth, Florence was like Italy itself to me: the embodiment of high culture that I loved, but which always reminded me of its enormous distance from the world of my family.”

The reminder also came in his freshman year of college at Tufts University. One of his classmates was from Turin, “light-skinned and sleek as a Ferrari, she stood worlds apart from the thick, black-haired women I had grown up with.” But when he told her his parents were from Calabria, she sneered “that’s Africa, not Italy.”

“Italies” most often reads as a memoir, Luzzi drawing from practices and incidents of his past to illuminate the two visions of his forefathers’ homeland. He writes of his wife and their love and of her tragic death in an automobile accident.

He writes of his domineering and not-so-compassionate father, who had difficulty marrying his Calabrian past to his American present.

He relates an incident in which a neighbor’s wife was found with another man.

The woman’s brother beat her, and the council of Calabrian men led by the author’s father met with the husband to determine her fate. It was imperative, according to custom, that the husband punish his disgraced wife to regain his honor. Faced with the dilemma of bowing to custom or “following his aching heart all the way back to the arms of his scarlet-lettered wife, the husband moved to California … with his wife.”

It’s anecdotes such as this that give Luzzi’s work richness. And Luzzi’s academic prowess in all cultural things Italian, adds spice.

He draws from numerous authors, both long-gone and still alive, to delve into Italy’s history and explain how the country’s dialect-driven languages eventually were woven into one.

Luzzi appears to the reader as a conflicted offspring of southern Italians. He seems to appreciate and understand the life his parents and relatives lived both before and after their journey across the Atlantic, but he also appears to long for acceptance into the Italian world graced by that freshman at Tufts. Had his parents and relatives traveled north to find work instead of coming to the United States, their accent, clothes and table manners would have labeled them outsiders, he writes. “In a no-place, in America it was easier to invent yourself.” Still, that yearning for acceptance tugged at him, especially when he studied in Florence. He bemoans:

“I taught their culture and had devoted my life to publicizing their art to the world. Yet the Florentines held their ground. No matter how much my Italian improved, no matter how often I wore that slim-waisted Montezemolo shirt with the bold stripe, I could not scale the barriers to entry.”

Then again, the reader wonders, why try? After all, Luzzi admits it was his parents and what they brought from Italy that filled a void in his life, to wit, “The English grammar I studied in grade school disciplined my thoughts … but it was the tender and violent sentiments of my parents’ Calabrian that taught me how to feel.”

Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School. ]]>
Sat, 12 Jul 2014 14:13:35 -0400
<![CDATA[ Michael Hastings’ posthumous ‘The Last Magazine’ is a memorial to a radical truth-teller ]]>
By Michael Hastings

Blue Rider Press

336 pages, $26.95

By Margaret Sullivan


When the journalist Michael Hastings died in a single-car crash last year at age 33, not even his wife realized at first that he had left behind this flawed but impressive novel – the first, and last, that he ever wrote.

“The Last Magazine” is, among other things, the blackest of comedies, telling in entirely believable detail just how the liberal mainstream media helped push America into the ill-fated war with Iraq in 2003.

The craven careerism, the outsize personalities, the destructively magical thinking – all are on display as Hastings takes us inside life at a national magazine just after the turn of the millennium.

He also points a spotlight on the fading world of print journalism, especially tough at once-great newsweeklies; those journalists, he writes, were dead men walking.

The magazine in question is Newsweek, made clear in all but name, since the disguises here are so thin they’re positively anorexic. And the narrator – flashing in and out of an amusing meta-commentary that addresses the reader directly in occasional gray-toned pages – is a young news clerk named Michael Hastings. This is clearly an alter-ego of the author, who interned there in his early 20s.

But another alter-ego is A.E. Peoria, a brash foreign correspondent who is career-obsessed, wildly insecure and prone to unbalanced decision-making in faraway places. (Peoria, writes Hastings, “likes to think of himself as Icarus, probably because that’s the only Greek myth he can remember accurately without the help of a search engine.”)

The reporter’s gonzo experiences also mirror the real-life ones of Hastings, who wrote about America at war for Newsweek, Buzzfeed and Rolling Stone.

It was for Rolling Stone that Hastings wrote the award-winning article he is best known for, “The Runaway General,” whose eyes-wide-open depiction of Gen. Stanley McChrystal ultimately caused his resignation as commander in Afghanistan. Why?

Because the general and his staff – in what they clearly thought was off-the-record conversation and behavior – had mocked their civilian superiors, including Vice President Biden, and otherwise behaved badly.

Hastings, not following the unwritten rules that many journalists follow with their big-league sources, never put his notebook away. He wrote it all down, and published it, letting the chips fall.

And in fictional form, that’s exactly what he does again in “The Last Magazine.” He proves himself the kind of person who is never going to win any popularity awards with the establishment – which is also the kind of journalist who is very much needed in the world, and certainly in an America that keeps going to war, or tiptoeing to the brink of it.

So, through his clear if cynical gaze, we see the way the media helped prod a nation into a doomed war in Iraq; we see two men putting their scruples aside as they spar for the top editor’s job; we see the way a young intern is treated like chattel; and most of all, we see the way news can stray pretty far from the truth as marketing concerns, egos-run-amok and deadline chaos get in the way.

Both very dark and very funny, “The Last Magazine” is also a valuable addition to the literature about the disastrous war, the fallout of which the United States is still grappling with today.

As it careens from manic scene to manic scene, Bangkok to Baghdad to Manhattan, it can seem frothy or superficial. But what it’s recording is as serious as it gets. (Fair warning: “The Last Magazine” is full of raunchy sex scenes; you may not want to offer it to your favorite high school sophomore without parental consent.)

As a novel, it is unpolished, though almost always likable. And as social and political commentary, and as a record of a low point in American media history, it achieves a harsh brilliance.

Its publication is a reminder to those who admired Michael Hastings’ adversarial, take-no-prisoners style of just how much was lost in that car crash. There aren’t too many radical truth-tellers in our world; polite society doesn’t encourage such things. Michael Hastings, who lived and worked ferociously and sometimes recklessly, was one of the few. His only novel is a worthy testament to just that.

Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The Buffalo News and the current public editor of the New York Times. ]]>
Sat, 12 Jul 2014 14:13:31 -0400
<![CDATA[ Books in Brief: The Family Romanov, The Silkworm ]]>
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming; Schwartz & Wade books, 253 pages $18.99 Ages 12 and up.


Candace Fleming, a specialist in intelligent, wondrously researched, vivid biographies for young readers (“The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary” and “Amelia Lost,” to name two), offers a seamless, page-turner of a narrative, weaving three stories into one: a biography of the doomed Romanovs (Nicholas II, Alexandra and their five children), the tumultuous events that led to the Bolshevik revolution, and brief snippets in the voices of peasant farmers and factory workers, offering haunting insight into the extreme poverty and deprivation endured by Russia’s vast anonymous underclass.

Fleming exhaustively researched her subject but does not exhaust the reader. Her narrative races along, not a word wasted, as she brings to life Nicholas II, bullied by his formidable father and terribly unsuited to rule; the reclusive German-born Alexandra, whose extreme religiosity and concern for her hemophiliac son disastrously put her in thrall to Rasputin; the four girls who referred to themselves as OTMA, slept on army cots, and studied languages but not much else with mediocre tutors, and who died the most terrible deaths of all, the jewels sewn into their underwear acting like bulletproof vests, sending bullets ricocheting around that basement in Ekaterinberg.

– Jean Westmoore


The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith; Mullholland Books (464 pages, $28)


As the woman who created Harry Potter, Rowling became one of the most famous authors on the planet.

Her first book for adults, 2012’s “The Casual Vacancy,” was a best-seller, but critics were not impressed. For her next venture, Rowling invented a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The manuscript featured Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran turned private detective. Called “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” it appeared in 2013, getting scant, if positive, attention. That all changed last July when Rowling was unmasked as Galbraith and the book shot up best-seller lists.

With “The Silkworm,” Rowling returns to Galbraith, framing a novel about a leaked manuscript, the turmoil it creates and its author’s grisly murder. As the book begins, Strike is in demand after his last case but struggling a bit financially; he’s a big guy who lost the lower half of one leg in Afghanistan. He is also the barely acknowledged illegitimate son of a recognizable rock star. He has an attractive assistant, Robin, and while she’s engaged and he has sworn off romance, there is a hum of possibility between them.

Strike agrees to help a woman find her husband, an author who disappeared in a huff after his agent told him that his latest book, “Bombyx Mori,” was unpublishable. Rumors are flying about its contents, which supposedly trash everyone who works in publishing. The only known copy is locked up in an editor’s safe.

The missing author, arrogant and bitter, descended into writing lurid works after a promising literary debut. His wife’s chief concern is for their disabled daughter, a childlike adult who lives at home. Then Strike finds his body, gruesomely murdered in a manner that echoes the secret manuscript.

This puts attention on the unpublished book, which is a bloody, sexually explicit tale. It is also, we discover, not so secret: The editor, an absent-minded alcoholic, had shared the safe’s combination with his staff.

Strike ends up with a copy, which he finds nightmarish.

Sorting through the possibilities brings Strike to a powerful publisher, a famous author, a friend who died too young and an anonymous satire that led to a spouse’s suicide.

The plot zings along, Strike marches through a wintry London that makes him increasingly vulnerable with his bad leg. Robin’s talents are essential, but she worries that Strike doesn’t see them, and her personal and professional life seem to be on a crash course.

Rowling is extraordinarily good at filling her mystery with fleshed-out characters. Even simple walk-ons have dimension, oddity, nuance. She occasionally overdoes it on description: “When she expelled smoke from her scarlet mouth she looked truly dragonish, with her shining black eyes,” she writes of the domineering agent.

At the same time, “The Silkworm” is set in the very real world of British publishing, which makes it tempting to look for corollaries.

This is a fun parlor game that leads into a hall of mirrors. We’re reading a book set in a fictional version of the British publishing industry that’s about a book that mocks this fictional publishing industry. Everyone is trying to guess who is who.

All that makes “The Silkworm” swift and satisfying, especially when read through the lens of secrets and fame and the famous writer behind it all.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Rowling says that writing as Robert Galbraith “has been pure joy.” I hope she continues with the Strike mysteries, under whatever name she likes.

– Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times ]]>
Sat, 12 Jul 2014 14:13:12 -0400
<![CDATA[ Best sellers: July 13 ]]>
1. Invisible. James Patterson,

David Ellis. Little, Brown, $28.

2. Top Secret Twenty-One. J

anet Evanovich.

Bantam, $28.

3. Silkworm. Robert Galbraith.

LB/Mulholland, $28.

4. Mr. Mercedes. Stephen King.

Scribner, $30.

5. The City. Dean Koontz.

Bantam, $28.

6. Written In My Own Heart’s

Blood. Diana Gabaldon.

Delacorte, $35.

7. The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt.

Little, Brown, $30.

8. All Fall Down. Jennifer Weiner.

Atria, $26.99.

9. The One & Only. Emily Giffin.

Ballantine, $28.

10. Born of Fury. Sherrilyn Kenyon.

St. Martin’s, $27.99.


1. Blood Feud. Edward Klein.

Regnery, $27.99.

2. Hard Choices. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Simon & Schuster, $35.

3. How the World Sees You. Sally Hogshead.

Harper Business, $29.99.

4. One Nation. Ben Carson.

Penguin/Sentinel, $25.95.

5. All In Startup. Diana Kander.

Wiley, $24.95.

6. Instinct. T.D. Jakes.

FaithWords, $25.

7. The Family of Jesus. Karen Kingsbury.

Howard Books, $25.99.

8. Think Like a Freak. Levitt/Dubner.

William Morrow, $28.99.

9. Capital in the Twenty First Century.

Thomas Piketty.

Harvard/Belknap ($39.95)

10. Good Call. Jase Robertson.

Howard Books, $25.99. ]]>
Sat, 12 Jul 2014 14:12:43 -0400
<![CDATA[ Hillary Clinton and her best-selling tale of 1 million miles logged on the job ]]>
Hard Choices

By Hillary Clinton

Simon & Schuster

600 pages, $35

By Mark Sommer


Hillary Clinton is nothing if not smart, hardworking and prepared.

As New York’s junior senator, she was a quick study on the issues confronting Western New York, possessing an impressive grasp of the issues evident to any journalist who interviewed her.

That same intelligence and drive are on display in “Hard Choices,” Clinton’s best-selling account of her four years as secretary of state, when she visited 112 countries and logged nearly 1 million miles.

The book has garnered enormous attention for what it might say about the person widely presumed to be Barack Obama’s successor, even if the election is more than two years away and Clinton is months from announcing a decision. But if she does decide to run – which would surprise nobody – and her pursuit is ultimately derailed, it won’t be because of this workmanlike book that avoids alienating allies or providing the “vast right-wing conspiracy” with fodder against her.

Those who don’t like Clinton are not likely to invest the time, energy and cost on a 600-page book highlighting her successes and failures. But for people who like their leaders smart and wonky, and with a command of the issues (see also Clinton, Bill), this book is an asset.

“Hard Choices” is a solid and often revealing, behind-the-scenes account of the life of a secretary of state. Despite the absence of a legacy-defining triumph on the order of a Middle East breakthrough, Clinton was in the center of major international crisis on several continents, and she takes the reader along with her.

Clinton delves into the nuances and complexities of international relations, while working to repair the country’s standing in the world after the previous administration. Challenges range from pushing a new “pivot” to Asia and rapprochement with Burma, to salvaging a cease-fire in Gaza, galvanizing support for the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and promoting safer conditions for African girls and women.

With the issues come the personalities behind them, from the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai to Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sun Kyi and the late Nelson Mandela.

Clinton makes no effort to conceal her low regard for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but reveals a fascinating account of how she tapped into his concern for Siberia’s endangered tigers to forge a connection.

Clinton, by most accounts, came to be one of Obama’s most trusted advisers, so it’s no surprise that she leaves no more than a crack of daylight between them when it comes to a difference in opinion. Even when differences do surface – such as when she and Gen. David Petraeus favor arming Syrian rebels early on in that country’s horrific civil war – she defers to Obama’s judgment in not following their advice. It’s clear he is someone she grew to admire and feel affection for.

The book opens with Clinton’s first meeting with Obama after he has secured the Democratic Party nomination, and the process she went through before agreeing to serve as his secretary of state. From there, it’s a headfirst plunge into the job, as she walks readers chapter by chapter through the regional challenges that tested her abilities of statecraft and one-on-one relations. Included are Clinton’s many efforts to speak directly to everyday people around the world through town hall-style meetings.

A constant throughout the book are Clinton’s efforts to improve the treatment of girls and women, which more than anything have come to define her life’s work.

There are regrets, including not having done more to help Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators during the Green Revolution in 2009, and the Benghazi tragedy that saw Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed at the diplomatic compound. They were there because of her belief in “expeditionary diplomacy,” which calls for a State Department presence in dangerous locations.

In a chapter devoted to Benghazi, Clinton expresses her deep remorse, and describes the preventative actions developed to avoid similar dangers in the future. But she also defiantly refuses to participate in what she calls a partisan “political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”

For those who think Clinton is too far to the left, Clinton burnishes her moderate-liberal credentials by denouncing Cuba’s Castro and Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, and expressing support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement which unions have lined up against.

There isn’t much about Clinton’s personal life in this book – 2003’s “Living History” provided that – but there are warm reflections about Bill, Chelsea and her late mother Dorothy Rodham. There’s also some humor sprinkled throughout. When Clinton asks a Burmese politician if he’s read books or spoken with experts on running their Lower House of Parliament, he answers, “Oh no. We’ve been watching “ ‘The West Wing.’ ” In Kenya, Clinton promises to convey a “very kind offer” to Chelsea after a city councilman renews a marriage proposal from years earlier to exchange 40 goats and 20 cows for her hand in matrimony.

Clinton no doubt left out plenty that would have rankled others, but politicians whose careers are still being written are wired to avoid such controversies. (Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt no such compunction in his recent tell-all book.)

And it’s clear the ink on Clinton’s political career has yet to dry. She all but says so. “The time for another hard choice,” she says in the book’s last sentence, “will come soon enough.”

Mark Sommer is a News reporter whose subjects have included the former New York Senator and U.S. Secretary of State. ]]>
Sat, 12 Jul 2014 14:12:40 -0400
<![CDATA[ Poetry and Literature Calendar (July 13-July 19) ]]>
Tuesday, 7 to 8 p.m.: Buffalo Reading Invasion – a monthly summertime flash mob-like gathering to celebrate the role of reading, public space and community in our lives. Bring a book, a chair and several friends or family members for an hour of quiet reading in one of Buffalo’s best-loved public spaces. This month’s location: The Black Rock Heritage Garden at the corner of Dearborn Street and Hamilton Street. Visit for further details.

Tuesday, 7 p.m.: Book Launch: Reading and book signing by Terez Peipins, author of “Dance the Truth” (Saddle Road Press, Forty-Three North Chapbook Series). Artspace Buffalo Gallery, 1219 Main St.

Wednesday, 5 p.m.: “Dreaming with Both Hands,” a poetry reading featuring Emanuel and Samuel Floyd. Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St.

Wednesday, 6:15 P.M.: Spotlight on Youth: Open format poetry, spoken word, musical performance, dance and visual arts series for young people, ages 12 to 21, hosted by Joyce Carolyn. Trinity Place Courtyard, 371 Delaware Ave. ]]>
Thu, 10 Jul 2014 14:13:55 -0400
<![CDATA[ Poems of the Week: By Terez Peipins ]]>
By Terez Peipins

Salt cakes my lips together,

dries my eyes.

I grow a tail, submerge

and return

where waves

scraped my legs

on sea rocks

and changed my blood –

it flows green.

I return to mother light,

mere, mare, madre –

Mediterranean, the middle sea.

My breath

turns liquid.

Stolen Plums

By Terez Peipins

Stolen plums

are sweetest

from the walled garden.

Broken stones

pile up.

A plow rusts

in the corner.

The tree glows dusky purple.

First I scoop up the fallen,

then bolder, reach for perfection

in the highest branches.

TEREZ PEIPINS, a Western New York-based writer of Latvian descent, will read from and sign copies of “Dance the Truth,” her new collection of poems published by Saddle Road Press, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Artspace Buffalo Gallery, 1219 Main St. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in publications both in the United States and abroad, where she lived for more than two decades teaching English at the University of Barcelona and the Open University of Catalonia. She is the author of two previous chapbooks of poetry, “A Remedy of Touch” and “Box of Surprises” (both published by Finishing Line Press), and a novel, “The Shadow of Silver Birch” (BookBaby, 2014) available in e-book format. ]]>
Thu, 10 Jul 2014 14:13:54 -0400
<![CDATA[ Book explores relationship between Mark Twain and his wife, Livy ]]> Buffalo can thank Mrs. Mark Twain for its claim on a brief portion of the great author’s life, for it was Livy Langdon and her family who helped bring him to the city. Twain’s father-in-law gave the newlyweds a house on Delaware Avenue as a wedding gift, and he provided the money for his son-in-law’s part-ownership of the Buffalo Express newspaper, starting the couple’s 18-month stay in the city in 1870.

In “Mrs. Mark Twain: The Life of Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904” (McFarland, 209 pages, $45), author Martin Naparsteck, writing with Michelle Cardulla, takes a closer look at the Langdon family and Livy’s role in her husband’s life and career. As interpreted here, Olivia Langdon was the woman who helped Twain find himself, and his voice.

The Langdons, of Elmira, were a family of well-to-do liberals who considered slavery a “great moral wrong” and who thought that young women had as much right as men to a good education.

“Livy and her family were huge influences on (Twain’s) social beliefs, which he was just developing as a young man in his 30s,” says Thomas J. Reigstad, a local Twain scholar and author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’,” about the couple’s time in Buffalo.

To explain their progressive politics, Naparsteck delves into the Langdon family roots – how they became wealthy, and how they used that wealth. He did much of his research in Elmira, gaining permission to do some writing at Quarry Farm, the Langdon property where Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Clemens spent many summers in the early years of their marriage. The immersion helps Naparsteck, also a contributor to One Tank Trip travel columns for The Buffalo News, re-create their post-Civil War 19th century world – one of rich, rural success framed in liberal politics and Eastern sensibilities.

This background helped make Olivia especially appealing to her older suitor (she nicknamed Twain “Youth” to counter their 10-year age difference). She was completely different from the people of Sam Clemens’ experience, and represented aspirations he may not have known he had.

Clemens had grown up “rough” along the Mississippi River before starting a vagabond life in the even rougher West as a young man, but he often felt at odds with the somewhat crooked moral compass of the frontier that regularly valued expediency above humanity. For him, Livy presented another version of social action.

The book presents Olivia Langdon as a forward-thinking daughter of her times, well educated and literary, an equal intellectual match for her future husband. The two were introduced by Charlie Langdon, Olivia’s brother, who had become friends with Twain during a cruise to the Middle East that became the basis for the book “The Innocents Abroad.”

Frail and often sickly, Olivia had a physical delicacy that concealed her strong fortitude. She turned down Twain’s proposals at least twice before agreeing to the marriage, and evidence suggests she had no regrets.

Their correspondence and other writings reveal a true love affair, enduring through time, travels and tragedy thanks to Mrs. Twain’s efforts – and despite her husband’s lack of them. Their lifelong happiness together is a more recent reading of the marriage, which for years had been derided by Twain scholars as stifling and possibly made for money.

Reigstad says the negative take on the marriage began early on, with Van Wyck Brooks’ “The Ordeal of Mark Twain,” a psychological study of the author published in 1920.

“The premise was that Twain faced all kinds of obstacles in his career, and one of them was Olivia and her family and their Victorian sensibilities,” Reigstad said. “This kind of thinking went on for years, but I’ve felt all along that she was the glue that held him and their family together. He took so much for granted, leaving for any reason, even when his wife and children were sick – going to a wedding in Cleveland, to New York City to meet his publisher, to Washington to have his picture taken by Matthew Brady.”

The frequent comings and goings, and Livy’s adjustments to them, are chronicled thematically rather than chronologically in “Mrs. Mark Twain,” and show a family in which love and affection are expressed as much through letters as through physical contact. Twain never truly gave up the vagabond life, and though the family built a mansion in Hartford, Conn., the master of the house was regularly absent – on the lecture circuit, business trips or simply gadding about.

The mansion represented Twain’s taste for the rich life as much as his wife’s wealthy upbringing, and it was Livy who helped finance their lifestyle with her large inheritance. The book details the business success of her father, Jervis Langdon, and, in sharp contrast, the total lack of financial acumen shown by her husband, who wound up in bankruptcy.

The book is well-sourced and the level of detail is extensive, contributing to a dry tone that dilutes much of the drama of Olivia’s story – the early death of their son and later death of a daughter, Livy’s health problems, Twain’s money problems, and constant travel, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to stay ahead of creditors.

But then there are some details that jump out for Western New Yorkers, such as the explanation of how Twain’s mother and sister wound up living in Fredonia:

“Sam had lectured in Fredonia and found it a pleasant town, and it was both close enough to Buffalo for him to look in now and then on his mother and far enough for her not to be a constant presence.” For the record, his mother didn’t want to move there, and the houses they lived in still stand, unlike Twain’s house in Buffalo, which was destroyed in a fire.

“Mrs. Mark Twain” is a worthwhile addition to the scholarship that is bringing Olivia Langdon Clemens out of the background and rebuilding her reputation.

For almost a century, biographers overlooked Olivia, or saw her calming influence as something her artistic husband had to overcome. More recent biographers, starting with Laura Skandera Trombley’s “Mark Twain in the Company of Women” and including Resa Willis with her “Mark and Livy,” have presented a more rounded, flattering portrait of the couple’s relationship.

Readers don’t have to believe them. They can look to Twain himself, who had this to say about marriage in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:”

“People talk about beautiful friendships between two persons of the same sex. What is the best of that sort, as compared with the friendship of man and wife, where the best impulses and highest ideals of both are the same. There is no place for comparison between the two friendships; the one is earthly, the other divine.”

And, for his Livy, this line from 1894: “No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”

The Twains’ marriage lasted 34 years, until Livy died in Italy in 1904, at the age of 58.

email: ]]>
Mon, 7 Jul 2014 13:59:11 -0400 Melinda Miller
<![CDATA[ Best sellers: July 6 ]]>
1. Invisible. James Patterson, David Ellis.

Little, Brown, $28.

2. Top Secret Twenty-One. Janet Evanovich.

Bantam, $28.

3. Silkworm. Robert Galbraith.

LB/Mulholland, $28.

4. Mr. Mercedes. Stephen King.

Scribner, $30.

5. Written In My Own Heart’s Blood. Diana Gabaldon.

Delacorte, $35.

6. All Fall Down. Jennifer Weiner.

Atria, $26.99.

7. The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt.

Little, Brown, $30.

8. The Matchmaker. Elin Hilderbrand.

Little, Brown, $30.

9. The One & Only. Emily Giffin.

Ballantine, $28.

10. The Target. David Baldacci.

Grand Central, $28.


1. Hard Choices. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Simon& Schuster, $35.

2. Blood Feud. Edward Klein.

Regnery, $27.99.

3. One Nation. Ben Carson.

Penguin/Sentinel, $25.95.

4. Good Call. Jase Robertson.

Howard Books, $25.99.

5. Instinct. T.D. Jakes.

FaithWords, $25.

6. Capital in the Twenty First Century.

Thomas Piketty.

Harvard/Belknap ($39.95)

7. Think Like a Freak. Levitt/Dubner.

William Morrow, $28.99.

8. Everything I Need to Know I Learned From

a Little Golden Book. Diane Muldrow.

Random/Golden Books, $28

9. America. Dinesh D’Souza.

Regnery, $29.99.

10. Grain Brain. David Perlmutter.

Little, Brown, $27. ]]>
Fri, 4 Jul 2014 15:59:34 -0400
<![CDATA[ Poem of the Week: By Tarfia Faizullah ]]> after Jon Pineda

By Tarfia Faizullah

for this, I am grateful. This elegy

doesn’t want a handful of puffed rice

tossed with mustard oil and chopped chilies,

but wants to understand why a firefly

flickers off then on, wants another throatful

or three of whiskey. This elegy is trying

hard to understand how we all become

corpses, but I’m trying to understand

permanence, because this elegy wants

to be a streetlamp dying as suddenly as

a child who, in death, remains a child.

Somewhere, there is a man meant for me,

or maybe he is meant merely to fall

asleep beside me. Across two oceans, there

is a world in which I thought I could live

without grief. There, I watched the hands

of a leper reach with hands made of lace

towards a woman who leaned into him.

There, I fingered bolts of satin I never

meant to buy. There, no one said her name.

How to look down into the abyss without

leaning forward? How to gather the morning’s

flustered shadows into a river? To forget

my sister was ever born? Tonight, I will

watch a man I could have loved walk past,

hefting another woman’s child. He won’t

look at me. I won’t have wanted him to.

This elegy wonders why it’s so hard

to say, I always miss you. Wait, she might

have said. But didn’t you want your palms

to be coated in mustard oil? Did you really

want to forget the damp scent of my grave?

TARFIA FAIZULLAH will join Buffalo-based poet Cheryl Quimba at the next Silo City Reading Series event at 7 p.m. Friday at 100 Childs St. Born in Brooklyn to Bangladeshi parents who immigrated to the United States in 1978, and raised in Midland, Texas, she has degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and is currently the Nicholas Delbanco Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. This poem is from her debut collection “Seam” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 22:44:28 -0400
<![CDATA[ Behind the scenes at Nintendo, Sega in ‘Console Wars’ ]]>
By Blake J. Harris

It Books, 558 pages, $28.99

By Stephen T. Watson

News Book reviewer

Blake J. Harris wrote “Console Wars” for me. More to the point, he wrote this book for all the children of the late 1980s and early 1990s who shot flying ducks and battled giant apes on their Nintendo Entertainment System or delivered hip checks and fired touchdown passes on their Sega Genesis.

That period marked the revival of the home video-game console. It served as the bridge between the Paleozoic era of Pong and the Atari 2600 and today’s world of Candy Crush on smartphones, FarmVille on Facebook and Grand Theft Auto on the Xbox 360.

Sega and Nintendo waged a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of kids, teenagers and young adults around the world, as Harris writes with enthusiasm and – at 558 pages – volume.

“Console Wars” is equal parts pop-cultural history and business case study. At its heart, it’s a book about a David-versus-Goliath duel between the upstart Sega and Nintendo, the entrenched giant.

Harris takes us behind the scenes at both companies, inside board rooms and trade shows in Japan and the United States. He wisely focuses on Tom Kalinske, who takes over as Sega of America’s president in 1990 and immediately sets about upending the video-game industry.

Kalinske’s background is fascinating. He sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as a member of the Tucson Boys Chorus. He started a magazine named Wisconsin Man as a college student. He helped create both Flintstones Chewable Vitamins and the He-Man action figure and revived the flagging Barbie line for Mattel.

At the time Kalinske joined Sega, the company had little respect in its home country and less in the United States.

Nintendo had 90 percent of what was a $3 billion industry, after single-handedly revitalizing video games after Atari went belly-up in the 1980s. A 100-year-old company that started out making playing cards, Nintendo set high standards for the products it sold and held tough negotiations with retailers and game designers. Games such as “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System were popular but safe and aimed at the traditional, kid demographic.

Harris writes that Kalinske saw an opening to market edgier games to teens and young adults for a 16-bit console, dubbed the Sega Genesis, which would offer better graphics and game play than the NES.

Sega just needed the right game, and Harris offers an engaging account of how Kalinske and his team brought to life Sonic the Hedgehog and sold the game and the character as a faster, hipper anti-Mario. Ads boasted “Welcome to the Next Level” and targeted Nintendo directly.

Nintendo was slow to respond, at first, and Sega ended up overtaking its rival in video-game sales by the mid-1990s, thanks in part to offering the more-violent version of games sold on both systems.

But fissures between Sega of Japan and its American division prevented the company from building on its Genesis success, despite Kalinske’s best efforts, and the executive left in frustration in 1996.

Harris ends the book there, leaving out an accounting of the years that followed when Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation took over the home console market and when much of gaming shifted to computers and smartphones.

Harris already is working on a documentary based on “Console Wars,” and Sony is making a feature film, so the book has struck a chord with its intended audience.

I can only hope that all of the 1990s-era, pop-culture celebrities who made appearances in the book end up in the movie. What other book has cameos from the actor who played Screech in “Saved by the Bell,” one-hit boxing wonder Buster Douglas and Michael Jackson?

Harris structures the book as a narrative, which makes “Console Wars” easier to read but raises the question of how the central characters can remember conversations from 20 years earlier that are quoted word for word.

Harris offers some compelling anecdotes, including a scene when a Sega of America employee turns the table on some Japanese colleagues by consuming the fugu – potentially poisonous puffer fish – they had dared him to eat in an attempt to embarrass him. And I was happy to learn, for example, that Mario was named after Nintendo of America’s mysterious landlord, Mario Segale, and Sonic the Hedgehog was designed as a blatant rip-off with Felix the Cat’s head on Mickey Mouse’s body.

But I would have reined in some of his phrase-making. Just try this one on for size: “Getting straight answers out of Nakayama was like catching a shadow and pulling its teeth with a needle from a haystack.” And the same sentence later in the book had “fighting wars on so many fronts,” “water under the bridge” and “carry the torch.”

Still, a lot of that is water under the bridge for me. If nothing else, I can thank Harris for taking me back to a time before mortgages and diaper changes when I spent hours in our basement, game controller in hand, and the only thing that mattered was getting to the next level.

Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter. ]]>
Sat, 5 Jul 2014 16:44:27 -0400
<![CDATA[ Michelle Huneven’s ‘Off Course’ ]]>
By Michelle Huneven

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

287 pages, $26

By Karen Brady


There is no place for right or wrong in Michelle Huneven’s striking new novel, “Off Course” – but there is plenty of room for obsession, denial and risk on its increasingly unsettling pages.

There is also room for humor and for often breathtaking descriptions of California mountain life as “Off Course” comes close to lifting Huneven from the rolls of fine-authors-with-popular-appeal to the shorter list of those with some real literary chops.

I say “comes close to” as there are chapters here that lag, and a main character, Quinn, whose draw, sexual and otherwise, never quite translates. But then, life often lags (for the young) – and Quinn has only to appeal to our protagonist Cressida for the fixation to begin, for Cressida to veer “off course, into the woods.”

This happens swiftly: “His kiss set off a whirr in her mind: What about Sylvia and mated for life? Does he know what he’s doing? The kiss felt premeditated and deliberate – a decision he’d made. Given the choice, she would have preferred (his brother). But Quinn had chosen her. How had she never noticed his eyes were such a strange pale green? She checked herself for guilt, or at least compunction about kissing someone’s husband, but nothing flared. He was the one who had made – and was now breaking – vows. Perhaps Sylvia should have paid him more attention. Been more sympathetic…”

Cressida may seem cold here (and she is) but she is also complex – and seeking, in her late 20s, a path to love and fulfillment while attempting to complete her dissertation (on the economics of art) during a stay at her parents’ vacation cabin in the shadow of the Sierras. At first she is thinking primarily of “the diss” – but she is lonely, by herself on the mountain off season.

Enter one Jakey Yates – who comes into her life before Quinn Morrow, Jakey being the expansive, divorced owner of the nearby Meadows Lodge where he also cooks and schmoozes with all and sundry.

Jakey, at 40-something an “older man,” is unreliable in matters of the heart – and Cress, as she is called for short, soon sees this. But Jakey is also convenient, and fun, and – for a while – always available.

After sex one day, he asks about her name (a marvelous touch here): “‘Cressida … What kind of a name is that?’ Well. Her mother had come to Los Angeles as a young actress and landed a role in an equity waiver production of Troilus and Cressida … her mother had received wonderful reviews … ‘So basically, I’m named for her best role. Her finest hour.’ ”

As Shakespeare’s Cressida was an unfaithful mistress – so Huneven’s Cressida will appear to be when the carpenter-farmer Quinn claims her attention: “Cress wasn’t afraid. She’d handled Jakey when he turned out to be a compulsive philanderer. Once she knew the facts, a door had shut in her chest. The same grasp on reality would keep her safe from Quinn … But she did feel for him. He cast sorrow and loneliness like trees cast shade. He was in dire need of comfort. As it happened, she could use some companionship too.”

Thus the stage is set for Cress’ and Quinn’s own Greek tragedy – one that will be played out against a backdrop of jaw-dropping California nature. There is a bear that comes around Cress’ cabin, and Quinn tells her of a bear his mother killed when he was a boy: “In the cold mercury vapor glow, he glittered as if covered with glass beads. He entered the yard on all fours, but when he got twenty-five, thirty feet away, he rose up, stuck his blunt old snout in the air, sniffing and sniffing, his head in a bright cloud of steam from his own breath. They got a big whiff of him then – man! was he rank! – and Quinn’s mother fired both barrels.”

At one point, Cress describes the changing landscapes of the area as she and Quinn “drove down through the seasons. The old snow freighting the branches melted as in a time-lapse film until, at 5,000 feet, the trees were clean, with soiled white patches only in the shade … Hundreds of feet below, the Hapsaw roared its fatted winter roar. The boulder-strewn hills around Sawyer had greened with new grass. The trunks of oaks were black with moisture, the leaves shiny-clean. They drove by the golf course and stark, manmade Glory Lake, where white houseboats cluttered the water like so many floating carports.”

For months, and then years, Cress and Quinn continue their symbiotic coupling – Quinn at one juncture deciding to leave his wife, later reconsidering. Cress’ doctoral thesis stays unfinished while she waitresses at a local resort.

“Off Course,” in this sense, may be read as a tale of forbidden love – but it is, on another level, an intense psychological study of a years-long interlude in an intelligent young woman’s life that will, for good or ill, shape all of her life to come. And that is far from all: Huneven’s buildup here is subtle but she also shows us the heartrending fissures in the families and friendships of both Cress and Quinn – he mainly with his shy, pretty wife Sylvia; she chiefly with her parents and, in particular, her mother (significantly also named Sylvia). There is damage, and Cress knows it (if, in Huneven’s rendering, only in terms of herself):

“She did have psychological problems, Cress would be the first to admit it: obsession, depression, loss of affect, anhedonia. And – not to be melodramatic here – she couldn’t quite locate herself anymore … except through the filter of him …”

An old story, perhaps, but also one rampant for the times – Reagan is president, Princess Grace and Glenn Gould have died and the sexual revolution is about to wane (as the threat of AIDS becomes real). Cress and her friend Tillie go to see an unnamed movie (featuring a mistress “who was up against the blameless bland wife and family itself, that fortress of sanctified virtue”) – and, while Cress identifies with the mistress, we recognize the film as “Fatal Attraction.”

Huneven’s earlier novels include the well-received “Blame” – another tale of a not-entirely-likable young woman, this one a party girl with a Ph.D., a professor who goes to prison after being convicted of killing a mother and child while driving drunk.

“Off Course” may not have as many twists and turns as “Blame” – but its venture into the human psyche is far more profound. Even when Quinn “is no longer listing in her direction,” Cress wavers:

“…she wanted out, she really did. At least part of her did. More and more, it seemed, she was in a civil war with herself, the side that had dug in versus the side that wanted out. The dug-in side was like a steel I-beam sunk deep in unconscious muck. The wanting out side was like that sheep of (Quinn’s) uncle’s, tangled deep in the brambles, bleating weakly for someone, anyone to come and yank her free.”

Huneven goes deep here, taking us so far “Off Course” with Cress that, in the end, we want nothing more than to help her.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist. ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 11:45:49 -0400
<![CDATA[ Appelfeld works his magic in ‘Suddenly, Love’ ]]>
By Aharon Appelfeld


232 pages, $25

By Stephanie Shapiro


Aharon Appelfeld works his customary sorcery in “Suddenly, Love,” – never, I hope, to be a Hugh Grant movie, despite the title’s resemblance to one of them.

Gruff old Red Army veteran Ernst, 70, lives in Israel and is recuperating from surgery with the help of Irena, a nurse in her 30s. “He is pleased when she takes a hint or guesses instead of asking him straight out.” That sets the tone for their relationship. Appelfeld’s literary sleight of hand shows in the spare, even stark, life they live. Yet at the end, they love each other. He has pieced together hints and musings of both characters to establish that fact.

Writing in Hebrew, a language originally chiseled into stone and therefore using few words per idea, Appelfeld nevertheless manages to create a delicate, wispy atmosphere. Credit also is due here to translator Jeffrey M. Green, who keeps the words and sentences short but never choppy and manages to capture the author’s airy images.

Ernst hasn’t had much of a life. A communist party thug from adolescence on, he winds up in the Red Army after World War II and eventually lands in Israel, pretty much by accident. The novel opens with him in retirement from his career as an investment counselor. He writes for three hours a day, novels that he knows no one will ever publish.

Irina, on the other hand, is a mouse of a woman. She was born in a displaced persons’ camp near Frankfurt and moved to Israel with her parents. She has inherited their apartment, their savings and the reparations they had received from Germany, so she doesn’t need a job.

Ernst and Irina don’t seem to improve their communication skills, even by the end. Yet the story as a whole is far from drab. For example, Ernst’s divorced second wife is, in his opinion, so clueless that she emigrates from Israel to Vienna. Vivid scenes show burning schools, Ernst’s first wife and their daughter being marched into an icy river to drown during the Holocaust.

Appelfeld’s method of making connections seems something like building ships in a bottle. Stick after stick is put inside the bottle, flat and at the very end, the builder pulls some strings, the sticks move upright, and ta-da, there’s a ship. The difference is that he leaves it to us to pull the final strings.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor. ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 13:12:56 -0400
<![CDATA[ Books in Brief: My Country ’Tis of Thee, Ruin Falls ]]>
My Country, ’Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Henry Holt ($17.99).


This interesting picture book, with dramatic paintings by acclaimed illustrator Bryan Collier, tells the history of the United States and various groups’ struggle for equal rights and their share of its promised freedoms through new verses written for the song, which first appeared in England in the 1740s as “God Save the King.” The author notes an early variation sung by followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie (“That Scotland we may see/Freed from vile Presbyt’ry”). The song’s popularity spread across the Atlantic, sung by British colonial soldiers celebrating victories in the French and Indian war and by British soldiers and loyalists during the Revolutionary War and answered by colonists with their own verses (“God save our Thirteen States.”) Abolitionists wrote their own verses, as did both sides in the Civil War, labor activists, feminists, Native Americans (Sioux writer Zitkala-Sa: “Land where OUR fathers died, Whose offspring are denied, the Franchise given wide”). The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the song in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Collier’s stunning watercolor-and-collage paintings add the human faces to the story.

– Jean Westmoore


Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman; Ballantine, 368 pages ($26)


In her second novel, Jenny Milchman delivers an intense family thriller that touches on all the hot-button fears of a parent while keeping the threat of violence on the periphery of the story. Although “Ruin Falls” lags a bit in the middle, Milchman’s strength in creating characters who grow and change keep the story on track. Liz Daniels, her husband, Paul, and their children Ally, 6, and Reid, 8, are taking a road trip to visit Paul’s estranged parents in rural upstate New York. It is the children’s first trip ever and the first time the couple has been away from their small farm since their kids were born. At home, Paul, a professor at a small agricultural college, insists the family live as much off the grid as possible, rigidly following an organic way of farming, forbidding the children to have most snacks, and staying close to the house. Liz isn’t prepared for this trip. She sees danger and conspiracies at every turn – she’s sure that a truck following too closely or a mentally challenged bellman mean harm to her family.

Uncharacteristically, Paul suggests the family spend the night in a hotel and spring for a suite with the children using one room. The next morning, the children have vanished. While the police search the hotel and grounds, Paul also disappears.

Convinced that this is a family matter and no laws have been broken, the police stop the investigation. But Liz refuses to give up. She searches for every clue, no matter how small, that will tell her where Paul went and why he took the children.

Milchman imbues “Ruin Falls” with a complex, yet believable plot that is as much a journey of Liz’s maturation as it is a hunt for these missing children. Liz must go from being “a woman who’d turned to other people all her life for sustenance and direction” to finding her inner resolve and strength, for herself and for her children.

“Ruin Falls” also carefully examines a marriage in which neither person really knows or trusts the other.

Milchman, who won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for “Cover of Snow,” extends her storytelling skills in “Ruin Falls.”

– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 11:32:47 -0400
<![CDATA[ Editor’s Choice: “Watching Them Be” ]]>
But the wildly personal book inside those unlikely parameters is a model of what film criticism always was at its best and what it continues to be at its best: the intersection of rare sagacity and insight with ever rarer literary and stylistic grace.

His somewhat graceless title comes from James Baldwin who said of John Wayne, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart “one does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be.” “The actor in the theater,” says Harvey, “ ‘disappears’ into a role, at least ideally; the movie star, never. Just the reverse – even if he’s an actor, even if he’s a great one. There’s always that close up.”)

Those whom Harvey is brilliantly watching “be” in closeup are specifically Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman at different career stages, Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Robert DeNiro, the actors in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” Jean-Luc Godard’s movies and those of Carl Theodor Dreyer. You could argue that his sights are ever on the rise throughout the book but at no stage does he stop having extraordinary things to say, whether it’s about the final scene of Ford’s “The Searchers” or Dietrich singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in Las Vegas.

– Jeff Simon ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 11:28:14 -0400
<![CDATA[ Poetry and Literature Calendar (July 6-July 12) ]]>
Wednesday, 7 to 9 p.m.: Reading featuring poet and spoken-word artist Janna Willoughby-Lohr and poet Efrayim Levenson, former Buffalo resident and author of “Book of Sparks: Psalms for a New World” (Waterloo Cottage Press, 2014). Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St.

Friday, 7 p.m.: Silo City Reading Series featuring poets Tarfia Faizullah and Cheryl Quimba; musician, sound and media artist Jax Deluca; and visual art and sculpture by Dave Derner. Faizullah, a Bangladeshi-American poet who grew up in Midland, Texas, is the Nicholas Delbanco Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards for her writing, including the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award for her debut collection “Seam” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014). Quimba is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra” (2014), and her poems have appeared in Dusie, Everyday Genius, 1913, and Phoebe. She is the publicist for Starcherone Books, and a teaching artist at the Just Buffalo Writing Center. Deluca, the executive director at Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources, is a multitalented musician, sound artist and songwriter. Derner, whose work has been exhibited at SUNY Buffalo State and the Center for Inquiry, has been voted Buffalo’s Best Sculptor three times by ArtVoice. Perot Elevator, Silo City, 100 Childs St. ]]>
Tue, 1 Jul 2014 13:49:34 -0400
<![CDATA[ John Quincy Adams: A visionary American who deserves a greater biography ]]>
John Quincy Adams: American Visionary

By Fred Kaplan


651 pages, $29.99

By Edward Cuddihy

News Book Reviewer

John Quincy Adams at age 73 stood before the United States Supreme Court, an institution his father helped create.

By this stage in his life, he was a “small, bald, somewhat fragile legislator ... who when he spoke transformed himself into a sharp-tongued, gesticulating dynamo.”

As he spun his intricately crafted argument before the panel of justices, composed of a majority of Southern slaveholders, he knew instinctively the lives of the 53 Africans from the schooner Amistad would turn on his mastery of logic and the law, not on emotion.

And contrary to the Spielberg 1997 film dramatization of the Amistad Case, the justices’ decision would not spell the end of slavery in the United States. It hardly would dent the aristocratic way of life in the South which pre-existed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In John Quincy Adams’ framing, all men were free, even those with dark skin, until the moment they were sold into slavery. He despised slavery with a New England passion, but he recognized it was a sordid and sorry fact of American life in 1841.

So he argued either those men were victims of a cruel West African kidnapping and acted in defense of their lives off the coast of Cuba, or based solely on their skin color and the continent of their origin, they were mutineers and murderers, destined from birth to be slaves.

At the end of three days of argument, Adams, a sitting member of Congress, a former senator, a highly acclaimed diplomat, co-author of the Monroe Doctrine, and yes, a former president of the United States, challenged the justices.

Reminding them he had argued a case before the Supreme Court 37 years earlier and that today all the participants in that case but he were deceased, he concluded with a thinly veiled scriptural threat: “I humbly hope ... that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant ...’ ”

Only one justice dared to test the deity. This was Adams’ finest hour.

The Amistad Case comprises only a tiny fraction of Fred Kaplan’s biography of the sixth president of the United States. It is contained in about 35 pages of this 600-page work. In fact, Adams’ disputed election and his presidency are handled in a single chapter.

It must be difficult to determine what to highlight in a momentous 80-year life that encompassed Adams’ being instructed by George Washington at one end of his life, and sitting in the same Congress with Abraham Lincoln at the other.

But frankly, this critic is somewhat disappointed in Kaplan’s handling of John Quincy Adams. Kaplan is no slouch. He is an exquisite writer, a first-class wordsmith and a patient and meticulous researcher. He is distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

His subject matter in this instance couldn’t be better, one of the most audacious and indomitable characters in all of American history. While still a teen, Adams traveled the courts of Europe with his father, the nation’s second president. He represented his nation before Czar Alexander at the Court of St. Petersburg, he was special envoy to Prussia at Berlin, he negotiated the treaty that ended the War of 1812 and forever cemented U.S. independence from England.

He was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Napoleon. He was U.S. minister to the Court of St. James in London and discussed the state of the world with the major European authors and thinkers of his age.

And all that before a disputed presidential election in which the House handed him the presidency despite his running second in the electoral vote and second in the popular vote. No candidate in the four-way race of 1824 attained an electoral majority, although war hero and future President Andrew Jackson had 15 more electors than Adams. Facing the Constitutional requirement of a clear majority, the House chose the president from the top three candidates.

Adams’ purported deal with the fourth candidate Henry Clay to gain House approval hung over a lackluster presidency.

And finally his 18 years in the House of Representatives, where as a former president, he was the voice of the opposition, the curmudgeon, the naysayer, the force against the South, its nullification laws, its slavery and the Constitutional provision that counted every five slaves as if they were three free men, thus tilting Congress and the Electoral College toward the South. No wonder four of the first five presidents were Virginians.

Adams’ adamant and acrid opposition to everything the South stood for, and his insistence on speaking of slavery on the floor of the House, despite a House ban on all discussion of slavery (in the North, it was called the Gag Act) led to threats of censure and at least two unsuccessful censure votes. His defense: “The affairs of a great nation have gotten into the hands of very small men.”

It was Adams who decades before the Civil War predicted: “Slavery is, in all probability, the wedge which will split up this union,” and described slavery as “the rock against which the ship of state will be split apart.”

Adams was a prodigious letter writer as a youth, and kept a diary for 69 years which is contained in 51 volumes in the Massachusetts Historical Society.

It is this very mass of primary source material that makes Kaplan’s important biography such a difficult read. Keep in mind, Adams did not write even in the common American English of two centuries ago. As a scholar of classical Greek and Roman writing, his prose probably was tough going for his contemporaries.

Yet Kaplan lets Adams tell his story in his own words, quoting huge chunks from his diary, letters and unabridged speeches. Often these page-long quotes, which probably are easy reading to our author and certainly a boon to future historians, are delivered with a minimum of context.

Kaplan chooses the traditional chronological biography format to tell his story. It almost seems there are two separate books in this 600-plus page work.

We have the first 250 pages, seen through the writings of the often-brooding and homesick eyes of a teen and young man who accepts public service positions in lieu of legitimate work. We have adolescent poetry and pining letters home, with precious little of the color of London, Paris, the Hague or St. Petersburg.

One of Kaplan’s specialties is discerning a man’s thoughts from what he reads. So we are treated to Adams’ youthful critiques of Shakespeare and Milton. We are told what Adams is reading on what day; what his wife, Louisa, is reading; what Adams is reading to his wife, and what they both are reading to their sons.

Then we have the last 300 pages where Adams seems to have escaped the shadow of his famous father. This riveting narrative, containing a more satisfying mix of context and quotation, includes the disputed election, the single-term presidency, and his 18 years of spirited congressional opposition to slavery, disunity and lawless national expansion. It is capped by Adams’ massive stroke on the House floor and his death in the Speaker’s Chamber.

One might dare to suggest an act of literary heresy (or self-preservation): Skip gingerly through the first 200 pages to capture the foundation and tone of the great man to come. And then somewhere around page 250, dig in with both hands and enjoy the later life of the American visionary named John Quincy Adams.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. ]]>
Thu, 3 Jul 2014 11:19:51 -0400
<![CDATA[ Buffalo News Book Club for July: ‘The Penderwicks’ by Jeanne Birdsall ]]>
And Latin being spoken, for both edification and fun.

You’ll learn what one bookish 10-year-old wants to be when she grows up.

And, by the end, what the relationship between sisters is really like – at least where one Massachusetts family is concerned.

In “The Penderwicks,” by Jeanne Birdsall, four young sisters go on a summer vacation to a New England cottage with their father, a widower.

The novel is about what happens during that trip – for Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty Penderwick, and their beloved dog Hound.

The book is the July selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.

You couldn’t pick a better book to read at the height of summer here in Western New York.

The subtitle of the book hints at its seasonal appeal: “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.”

And this book offers something for readers of every age.

Adults will see in its pages glimpses of books they loved as children.

And younger readers? They are about to meet a writer who takes them very seriously.

“The idea of writing down to children is very bizarre,” Birdsall told The News, by phone from her home in Northampton, Mass.

Birdsall said that, at bottom, her books aim to serve as ways of connecting with others. “To me, books are always conversations between the author and the reader,” she said.


Birdsall said that she loves books by writers like E. Nesbit and Edward Eager.

So, in her own works, she said she has tried to tell stories that will captivate readers in the same way she remembers being fascinated by reading as a child.

“The Penderwicks,” which won the National Book Award, is the first book in a series that currently numbers three volumes – with more to come. The series will eventually include five titles, Birdsall said. The fourth book is due out next March.

With “The Penderwicks,” Birdsall said, one of the tales she had in mind was Louisa May Alcott’s classic story of sisterhood.

“I thought, I will begin with the idea of ‘Little Women,’ ” said Birdsall, 63, in a conversation with The News.

In “The Penderwicks,” there are four sisters, ranging in age from 4 to 12.

Batty is the little one. Rosalind is the oldest, and nearer to her age are Skye, the second eldest, and Jane.

At the start of the story, the family is in motion – headed toward a few weeks at a summer retreat in the Berkshires.

“They’re in their car with Mr. Penderwick and Hound,” we read, as the book begins. “The family is on the way to Arundel and, unfortunately, they’re lost.”

Eventually they find their cottage, a small house in the country near a fancy estate called Arundel, occupied by a woman who seems very intimidating, and her son, Jeffrey.

In Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwicks find a friend – and a companion for a series of adventures. (“He’s a stand-in for Laurie in ‘Little Women,’” Birdsall said.)

They climb trees, shoot arrows, scavenge for old clothes and other treasures in Arundel’s attic, and feed treats to pet bunnies named Yaz and Carla. They wander into a pasture that might just be occupied by a fearsome, and very large, farm animal.

And, at the same time, the children try to figure out what exactly is going on with Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother, and her unlikable gentleman friend named Dexter Dupree. (Names are terrific in this one, as you already can see.)

The answer might involve a military academy that Jeffrey dreads attending.

Along the way, one of the Penderwick girls nurtures her dream of being a writer. Another finds herself thinking a lot about a teenage boy who works around the estate.

In crafting this “summer tale,” Birdsall said she wanted to take the central idea of a family of four tightly-knit sisters – and change it, into a new dynamic.

For instance, Alcott had made Jo the “strongest character” in her novel, Birdsall said.

“I wanted to split that up,” she said.

That’s why one of the Penderwick sisters has a temperament that seems similar to Jo March – while another one has the yearning to be a writer.


In “The Penderwicks,” you’ll find lots of creative, lighthearted play with words and language – both ancient and modern.

That applies to dialogue, which is quick and funny.

Take this bit, when some of the girls are practicing shooting arrows with Jeffrey:

“‘That’s the third time you’ve missed the whole target. Are you blind?’ said Skye.

‘Take off your hat, Jane,’ said Jeffrey.

Jane was wearing a yellow rain hat, because Skye and Jeffrey were wearing their camouflage hats, and she didn’t want to be the only one without a hat.”

The sisters also have code words for things like their meetings, which are called MOPS and MOOPS – or, “Meeting Of Penderwick Sisters,” as distinct, the book explains, from a “Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters.”

There is also family shorthand known as “OAP,” which means the “Oldest Available Penderwick” must do something or be somewhere.

Then there is the Latin.

Mr. Penderwick – who, Birdsall said, “is based a lot on my husband” – loves the ancient language, and often speaks in Latin to his daughters.

Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty don’t yet speak or read the language, but they are learning about it just by living with a dad who is a fan.

Birdsall said she studied Latin in school, and was impressed by it then – especially when she read “The Aeneid.”

“I studied it in high school for four years,” she said.

Writing about the Penderwick family allowed her to immerse herself again in the language – to acquire lots of books of Latin grammar and vocabulary, “and go through them and have fun with it.”

“You can make your characters be interested in the things you are interested in,” she said.

“Rosalind ends up studying Latin, too,” she added.

Playing with words and foreign languages is a source of delight, Birdsall said.

“Having, understanding these roots, it’s just – for me, knowing bits and pieces of all these languages is like having all these different flowers in my garden,” she said.


The other Penderwick books available, now, are “The Penderwicks on Gardam Street” and “The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.”

The next to be published will be “The Penderwicks in Spring,” Birdsall said.

“It actually skips time,” she said. “It’s about 5½ years after the end of the third book.”

“Batty turns 11 in there,” she said.

Of the series as a whole, Birdsall said that she has long had an idea of where the books would take her by the final pages of the last volume.

“I’ve had it planned from the very beginning,” she said. “There’s really an over-arching story I’m telling.”

“The only way I could tell it was by having some of them grow up.”

Birdsall said that she is in the early stages of working on the fifth Penderwick book.

Big changes will be in store, by the culmination of the five-book series.

“By the end of the series,” she said, “somebody will get married.”

Birdsall said that when the Penderwick series wraps up, she plans to continue writing other titles for children.

She said she feels very lucky to have had the four Penderwick sisters as a part of her life – not just for one story, but five.

“This has given me a way to relive my childhood, for 20 years,” Birdsall said.

“I’m pretty much the luckiest person in the world.”

“It’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful.”

email: ]]>
Mon, 30 Jun 2014 13:51:15 -0400 Charity Vogel
<![CDATA[ The Poets of the First World War and the world they never made ]]>
By Max Egremont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

337 pages, $28.00

By William L. Morris


A hundred years ago the decline of the West began in earnest. As it is today, English was spoken everywhere civilization had made inroads.

Then it was due to the British Empire. Now it’s the Internet’s fault.

Max Egremont, a graduate of Oxford, is both the editor of the poets’ work that he writes about here and the author of essays about them. All 11 fought in the war. Several of them died there. Their poems are organized in six sections chronologically: five of the years the war dragged on and one containing works by those who survived.

These poems represent the last time poetry meant something to an entire nation. That can’t be said for the poets who picked up the gauntlet afterward – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, et al. Looking directly at the apocalypse was too great a task for them. They favored experimentation and abstraction and gradually lost their audience with a few exceptions like Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost.

Egremont has spent his entire life studying the Great War. He wrote a biography of Siegfried Sassoon and thinks of these men as if they were his personal friends. His essays give the news about them without much editorializing. Fortunately it’s the sort of poetry that doesn’t need much explication. That’s both its great strength and its undoing.

“Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” is appropriate because these poems were later criticized for being too journalistic. Robert Graves, one of the war poets who survived, later disowned his war poems for that reason. That’s a bum rap because journalism was in what many consider its golden age.

Egremont quotes Sassoon as saying what a pity it was that Wilfred Owen died and not him. Owen would have been better able to take on the modernists.

The best way to enjoy these poems is to read the essay at the beginning of the book and the one at the end, then read as many of the poems as you can in one sitting. That way you can witness firsthand the growing disillusionment with the war. They are written in traditional forms and simple language. The clarity of these poems was used against them, a sad example of literally shooting the messenger. The only thing wearying about them is their subject.

Two poets stand out. Both of them died in battle. Edward Thomas captured the mood of the times without writing about war. Owen stared directly in its face and wrote bitter, heartbreaking near rhymes.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.

There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;

And God will grow no talons at his heels,

Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

– Wilfred Owen, “Arms and the Boy”

Both poets are terrifying. No wonder the ones who came later avoided emulating them.

When you are acquainted with the several different voices of these poets the information in the remaining essays will make more sense of the poems written by these young men who were tricked into thinking they could end war when what they were ending was a way of life.

William L. Morris was a co-creator of the News poetry pages and now lives and writes in Florida. ]]>
Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:58:14 -0400
<![CDATA[ Best sellers: June 29 ]]>
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Henry Holt, $28. ]]>
Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:47:25 -0400