Tag Archives: Harvard educated

Expecting to Fly

My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster; $25.99; 368 pages)

“Perhaps there was something buried in this memor that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried somewhere…”

The best memoirs take off and soar as they take us on a journey through the writer’s life.   This memoir by CNN Chief Mark Whitaker seemed to taxi on the runway from its beginning on page 1 until its conclusion 367 pages later.   This reader never felt the presence of Whitaker’s mind or personality in an account that was overly flat and dry:  “My mother taught and my father began writing his dissertation and I played with the other faculty  brats in the spacious yard outside while my brother grew into a toddler.”   The language, in fact, was so dry that I began to wish that this had been prepared as an “As told to…” or “With…” version with some energy to it.

It’s difficult to see what major statement about life was meant to be imparted by this work.   Whitaker’s professor father divorced Whitaker’s mother when Mark was young; thus, he seems to view himself as a unique member of a group that “…had grown up without our fathers around and with very little money in the house.”   That’s actually quite a large group in our society.   Moreover, Whitaker reminds us again and again that he wound up at Harvard.

There’s simply far too much here about Whitaker’s time at Harvard, and the lifelong connections he made there.   It seems that wherever Whitaker goes in the world, he meets people – primarily women – of whom he states, “She had also gone to Harvard.”   It becomes a very clubby account, and it’s hard to see why this would be of interest to the general reader.

“Angry men don’t make great husbands.”

In an attempt to create a story of interest, Whitaker casts aspersions on his father who is portrayed as either “a cruel bully or a selfish baby.”   Cleophaus Sylvester “Syl” Whitaker is also portrayed as a major alcoholic although it’s noted that he only missed teaching three classes in a long and distinguished academic career.   (He once entered a rehabilitation center for treatment.)   Syl held numerous impressive teaching and administrative posts at Swarthmore, Rutgers, UCLA (where he was a key assistant to Chancellor Charles E. Young), Princeton, CUNY and the University of Southern California (from which he retired, at age 60, as professor emeritus of political science and former USC College Dean of Social Sciences).   He was never found asleep in a gutter or under a bridge, so it is hard to see how this squares with Whitaker’s notion that his father’s life was an “arc of blazing early success fading into self-destruction and financial hardship.”

Perhaps there was something buried in this memoir that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried in a sentence such as this one, which I found to be a bit too clouded to understand:  “It was as if the longer I was separated from my father, the more I lost touch with the outgoing child who had modeled himself after him.”

Joseph Arellano

An advance review copy was received from the publisher.   My Long Trip Home will be released on October 18, 2011.

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Driven to Tears

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I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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