Lillian L. Shapiro
these days of bewilderment and a struggle to understand what has
happened to us in a world we usually took for granted we keep
looking for some balance, reassurance and courage to meet the
demands of our daily responsibilities. It is almost impossible
to escape the endless special television reports plus the running
ribbon beneath the program with staccato announcements of what
is happening without absolute confirmation of those events. What
has always been a necessary escape for me—from my childhood on—was
to turn to some book which would take me away from what was distressful
in my daily life.
In recent months I have had release in three books among which
was the newest title by Jose Saramago, Portugal Nobelist. In All
the Names the writer chooses as his “hero” an unimportant
clerk, who takes it upon himself to check some forgotten entry
on one of the thousands of cards in the Central Registry where
he works. He risks not only his job in clandestine activities—falsifying
a government identification in order to question possible neighbors
of an unknown young woman; breaking and entering (!) a school
building at night in order to learn about her through her school
reports and, finally risking being caught by the head of his bureau.
It is a tour de force of showing how there can be heroism in the
“ordinary” human when impelled by sympathy.
Another book which took me away from the present is a new title
by Joan Didion, well-known and widely acclaimed novelist. Political
Fictions takes a sharp look at our democracy between 1988
and 1999. Her critical remarks are on events like Dukakis’ campaign,
Gingrich’s plans for a better America and Clinton’s style of running
his race for the presidency. With attention-grabbing titles for
the various chapters she identifies them in a snappy way. For
example, “The West Wing of Oz” is her characterization of the
Reagan regime; “Clinton Agonistes” is the terrible time of what
she entitles “Political Pornography.” The Starr drama with unlikely
stars is “Vichy Washington” in Didion’s lexicon. She does not
condone, for example, Clinton’s behavior but she also makes clear
that the prosecution (persecution) of a sitting president went
beyond the civility of what one hopes attends legal and civil
procedures. Taking us back to that period between 1988 and 1999
is a therapeutic exercise to help us with the necessary strength
to recover—but probably not yet enough for September’s horror.
James Fenton’s The Strength of Poetry is a book which should
be bought and owned because of its wealth of information and the
felicity of its prose. These lectures were delivered at Oxford
where Fenton followed Seamus Heaney as Professor of Poetry from
1994 to 1999. An important running theme is a question of what
creates the poetic spark. The chapters cover a wide period which
includes Wilfrid Owens, Dryden, Whitman and much, much about Auden.
I enjoyed especially the chapters on Marianne Moore, Elizabeth
Bishop and Sylvia Plath referred to here as “Lady Lazarus.” The
wealth of quotations from the poetry of the authors named makes
for incentive to read further by and about these writers and the
style of Fenton, who has been a theater critic and a foreign correspondent,
is an added delight.#
Shapiro is a retired supervisor of libraries in the NYC public
Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel:
(212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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