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“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell— Life Goes On

O’Farrell, Maggie. “Hamnet”, Knopf, 2020.

Life Goes On

Amos Lassen

Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant new novel, “Hamnet” is set in England, 1580 as the Black Death begins its threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young. Even though the end of days is near, life always goes on.  We meet ayoung Latin tutor who has lived being bullied by his father. He has no money and is in love with Agnes, an eccentric young woman.  Agnes walks around her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known all over the countryside as having gifts as a healer and understanding plants and potions better than she does people. When she marries, she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon and becomes a protective mother and the major force in the life of her young husband, whose career in the theater of London is gaining prominence. Suddenly, their young son has a sudden fever. Undoubtedly, you recognize whose these characters are but this is a new look at them as we learn of their marriage and read of a family that is torn part by grief and loss. This is also the story of, Hamnet, a boy who we know little about but whose name was given to one of the most famous and celebrated plays of all time.

Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet there is still great love and passion. We see how the death of their son might have been the impetus for the writing of “Hamlet”, one of his father’s greatest plays. We also read how Hamnet’s mother deals with what is happening around her.

We know thatShakespeare wrote “Hamlet” four years after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. It is easy to see that Hamnet and Hamlet are the same name. Fir those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience the loss of a child, this is a look at that loss that tears at the heart and breaks it. Actually, this is a novel about grief and how a family deals with it.

As the story begins we meet Hamnet as he is greeted with an empty house. He then goes to his grandparent’s house but it is also empty. Silence is his only answer when he calls out. When he does find his grandfather, he is drunk and speaks abusively giving us an idea of what kind of life is in store for Hamnet.

Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is desperately ill Hamnet has been looking for somebody to help. We then go back in time to when Agnes and Shakespeare (who is never named) are to marry. We begin to move between past and present. In the past, we get the background of Agnes, her husband and the Plague and how Judith became ill. In the present, we read of the pain of losing a child. Written in gorgeous poetic prose, this is a book that moves quickly from page to page and that I was unable put down (in either definition of the phrase).



Hero in a Half-Shell

Amos Lassen

I must admit that when I got the 8 DVD/Blu ray set of “Gamera”, I was a bit overwhelmed especially after reading the description of a “titantic terrapin” that is a hero. I wondered why I would spend that much time watching a series about a turtle. I was so wrong— I totally enjoyed the experience.

Now for the first time ever, all twelve tales of the adventures of the heroic terrapin are collected together in one deluxe Blu-ray boxset. Through this series we follow the evolution of Gamera from being the friend of all children in his early films, to the Guardian of the Universe in the 1990s reboot series.

The collection includes:

  Limited collector’s edition packaging, housed in a large-format rigid box, fully illustrated by Matt Frank

  All twelve uncut original Japanese versions of the films in high definition, with Japanese and English audio 4K restorations of the critically acclaimed Heisei trilogy (Gamera the Guardian of the UniverseGamera 2: Attack of LegionGamera 3: Revenge of Iris)

  Hours of new and archive bonus features, expert commentaries (including August Ragone, David Kalat, and Steve Ryfle & Ed Godziszewski), interviews with cast and crew, and the worldwide Blu-ray premiere of Gammera The Invincible (the American theatrical version of the first film)

  Hardback 120-page comic book including a full-color reprint of the four-issue Gamera comic series originally released by Dark Horse Comics in 1996, and the first-ever English-language printing of the prequel comic The Last Hope by Matt Frank and Joshua Bugosh

  Perfect-bound 80-page book including a new retrospective on the series by Patrick Macias, kaiju X-ray illustrations by Jolyon Yates, and much more!

Indulge yourself—you won’t be sorry.

“The Beast and Other Tales” by Jouse D’Arbaud and translated from the Provencal by Joyce Zonana— Parables

D’Arbaud, Jouse. “The Beast, and Other Tales”, translated from the Provencal by Joyce Zonana, Northwestern University Press, 2020.


Amos Lassen

(Note*—  I use the spelling of gardian as it appears in the text and the Beast is capitalized here as a name would be.)

Jóusè d’Arbaud’s 1926 haunting parable is set during the fifteenth century in the Camargue delta, a large, desolate and lonely area where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean. The book is made up of four stories about solitude and loneliness. In “The Beast of Vacares”, Jaume Roubaud (the gardian), the narrator is a bull herder who comes upon a half man, half-goat, a creature that is starving. Even though he is terrified, he is drawn to the Beast and learns that it is dying. The Beast had once lived a wonderful life  and still has power over the animals around him. The gardian is both filled with fear and pity and he cannot understand what the Beast has gone through  and fears that he will be labeled as a heretic. After all how does one explain meeting a beast? The gardian decides to write everything down in his journal hoping that one day others will understand. We wonder if the beast is merely in his imagination, an illusion that has come out of his feelings of isolation. The Beast claims to be truth yet what does that truth hold for the gardian?

The story is a fantasy yet it is filled with the activities that the gardian participated in daily as well as serving as a nature guide to the region. As he encounters the Beast, the gardian must deal with ideas that are at odds with what he thought to be the correct way.  He has a breakdown both mentally and physically and he finds himself attracted and disgusted by the Beast. He trusts and distrusts the Beast just as he does himself and we realize that the Beast is the “other” causing him to doubt who he thought he was. He is transformed by the meeting but the result comes too late for the gardian (a story that should be familiar to so many of us).

In “The Beast” and in the three other stories, the theme that humans think that they dominate nature is evident. In “The Caraco”, a lone gardian brings in a female from another community, one that is disliked by the populace of his own and he finds love with her. In “Peire Guilhem’s Remorse”, we read about the bullring and what happens there as we feel sympathetic toward the horse. In “The Longline”, gardians who ignore nature and lay claim to a fishing-hole.

I do not believe I have ever read anything translated from the Provençal, an ancient language yet I relish the translation and Joyce Zonana’s ability to not only share the story in beautiful English but to also capture emotions while describing a time and place that are gone. For anyone who loves literature that makes you think, this is a book to be loved and reread often.

How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation” by E.D. Hirsch— A Manifesto

Hirsch Jr., E.D. “How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation”, Harper, 2020.

A Manifesto

Amos Lassen

“How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation”, writer E.D.Hirsch“highlights the essence of our American being and the radical changes in education necessary to sustain that essence. Concerned citizens, teachers, and parents take note!  We ignore this book at our peril.” This manifesto examines thefailures of America’s early education system and theimpactit hason today’snational situation and then goes on toadvocatefor a shared knowledge curriculumthat can be taught tostudents providing an educational foundation that will surelyhelp improve and strengthendemocracy’s identity.

Hirsch urges us  to educate our children more effectively to help heal and preserve the nation. Since the 1960s, our schools have used “child-centered learning.” Subjects such as history, geography, science, civics, and other essential knowledge have been watered down by vacuous learning “techniques” and “values-based” curricula.  Graduate schools of education have indoctrinated, administrators and educators that they are teaching reading and critical thinking skills. This has been done without  strong content.The result of this is a loss of shared knowledge that would help us “to work together, understand one another, and make coherent, informed decisions.”

Children, today, under-prepared and this takes away from the American dream and hurts the spiritual bonds and unity that have held the nation together. Hirsh looks back at early schoolmasters and educational reformers such as Noah Webster and Horace Mann and then gives the history of the rise and fall of the American early education system and shows us a blueprint for closing the national gap in knowledge, communications, and allegiance. He galvanizes our schools to provide children with the power of shared knowledge. His calls for ‘a better-educated citizenry’ must be examined by administrators and teachers. Hirsch’s arguments are clear and well-grounded in his criticism to enhance educational equity.

“Ghosts of Harvard: A Novel” by Francesca Serritella— A Brother’s Suicide

Serritella, Francesca, “Ghosts of Harvard: A Novel”, Random House, 2020.

A Brother’s Suicide

Amos Lassen

In Francesca Serritella’s “Ghosts of Harvard” a Harvard freshman becomes obsessed with her schizophrenic brother’s suicide. Then she starts hearing voices. Cadence Archer arrives on Harvard’s campus needing to understand why her brother, Eric, a genius who developed paranoid schizophrenia took his own life there the year before. Losing Eric left a hole in Cady’s life, and even though her decision to follow in her brother’s footsteps threatens to tear her family apart, she is haunted by questions of what she might have missed. The only one place to find answers is at Harvard.
As Cadence deals with enormous pressure at Harvard, she investigates her brother’s final year. She only has a blue notebook of Eric’s cryptic scribblings. She knew he had been struggling with paranoia, delusions, and illusory enemies—but  had no idea what pushed him over the edge. Her head is filled with voices that seemingly belong to three ghosts who passed through the university in life or death and whose voices and dreams and fears still echo in Harvard’s halls. Among them is a person whose name has been buried for centuries, and another whose name will never be forgotten.
Cady doesn’t know how or why these ghosts are contacting her but she is drawn deeper into their worlds and she believes that they’re moving her closer to the truth about Eric, even if she has go keep them as secret causing her isolation. At the center is the suicide and how the family of the victim struggles to cope and understand. Cady panics as she realizes that her brother also had voices in his head. She worries that genetics may be doing the same to her. However, the voices she hears tell her things that are historically true.  I read the book with compulsion enjoying the many themes of
mystery, history, schizophrenia, academia, family background, secrets, grief, college life, suicide and the supernatural.. 

The descriptions are exceptional especially those of Harvard.The novel is beautifully written and well-researched. Since the author is a Harvard graduate, she really knew what she was writing about.  We have palpable tension and twists and surprises throughout the story. The characters are craftily created and I was sorry when I closed the covers. I wanted more.

“I Saw Him Die” by Andrew Wilson— A Classic Whodunit

Wilson, Andrew. “I Saw Him Die: A Novel”, Washington Square Press, 2020.

A Classic Whodunit

Amos Lassen

Andrew Wilson’s “I Saw Him Die” is a classic whodunit filled with red herrings and double-crosses. Bestselling novelist and part-time undercover sleuth Agatha Christie is looking forward to a nice rest but that is interrupted when her friend John Davison begs her to help him protect a retired British agent turned hotelier who has been receiving threatening letters.

Christie and Davison travel to Dallach Lodge, a beautiful estate on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. There they move among the hotel’s illustrious guests, including members of the owner’s family, a leading lady of the theater, a brilliant botanist, a local doctor, and two sisters who co-author romance novels. After a very nice first evening, Christie does not think that any of them are capable of evil, much less murder. But early the next morning. the hotel owner is found dead in the arms of his nephew after shots were heard. At first, it appears to be a simple hunting accident, but as Christie digs deeper, she discovers that each and every one of the residents has a motive for wanting the man dead.

At first, it seemed like a terrible accident, but there are those letters so Agatha and Davison feel that they must investigate. “British reserve” and class lines are kept to here. The real cause of death turns up  and we learn that the dead hotelier was not a very nice person. Someone, who has been summoned to the Lodge and took revenge.

Finally, at the gathering in the drawing room seems rather tedious and unnecessary because Mrs. Christie is really good at this. In an afterward, “The Facts” with more historical information gives confirmation of an interesting historical fact that Christie relates in the text.  While the murder is well-set up, I must admit that I figured out who was responsible early on.

Christie was constantly making assumptions and was easily misled. She was worried that someone would realize that she, as a mystery writer, was trying to solve the mystery. She constantly lied, and no one called her on it even when she contradicted her previous stories.

Christie has a big reveal scene during which she gives a very lengthy recounting of every false lead and confusing turn. When revealing whodunit, she gave no evidence for murder, just supposition. She made no effort to avoid being the murderer’s last target. Too much of the murder scheme required everything to happen just so, and the motive wasn’t a compelling reason for murder. Christie

keeps us guessing and lays red herrings in with the clues before the murderer is finally revealed. A fun aspect of this book are  all the references to plots that the real Agatha Christie used in several books.

“The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice” by David Hill— The True story of America’s Original and Forgotten Capital of Vice

Hill, David. “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice”,  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020.

The True story of America’s Original and Forgotten Capital of Vice

Amos Lassen

There was a time when Hot Springs, Arkansas, a little Southern town was a premier destination for the American leisure class. It was home to healing waters, Art Deco splendor, and America’s original national park and horse racing, illegal casinos, countless backrooms and brothels and some of the country’s open criminals.

Gangsters and  gamblers came to Hot Springs where small-town hustlers and bigtime high-rollers could make a lot of money and hide from the law. “The Vapors” is the extraordinary story of three individuals and spans the golden decades of Hot Springs, from the 1930s through the 1960s. The lavish casino whose spectacular rise and fall brought them together before tearing them apart.

Arkansan David Hill shows us the trajectory of everything from organized crime to America’s fraught racial past, examining how a town that has been known for white gangsters  also supported a growing black middle class. We see that Hot Springs was also home to veterans hospitals and baseball’s spring training grounds. This is a look into a bygone era of American vice.Hill tells this story through a few ‘key’ players in Hot Springs history—Owney Madden, an ex-New York City mobster, Dane Harris, who Owney guides and who and becomes the boss gambler in Hot Springs, and Hazel Hill, the author’s grandmother, who represents what life was like for the everyday inhabitants of Hot Springs. Hill’s focus on his main characters shows how each was involved in or impacted by the lifestyle and the effect it had their lives. We get an idea of what it must have been like to live in this town through the descriptions of the lives of three individuals who worked in or ran the gambling industry in this Southern town. Hill does not cover over the uglier aspects of running a gambling town and we read of the crimes of murderous gangsters, corrupt politicians and the desperate struggle of local people who just wanted to live a decent live.

Hill brings together true crime and Southern history to chronicle the transformation of Hot Springs, Arkansas, from a spa town into a hotbed of horse racing, prostitution, and illegal gambling and he does it well.

TARGET: PHILADELPHIA”— A Look at Inequality


A Look at Inequality

Amos Lassen

In 1985, the MOVE bombing by Philadelphia police, in which cops killed five black children, we saw the rise of police militarization in the parallel context of black nationalism. “Target Philadelphia” sheds light on structural inequality as it pertains to the African American experience. The film clarifies and contrasts the inherent differences between what is held as the collective American immigrant perception of history with African American history, an inescapably alternative perspective on our nation as a whole that fundamentally questions the veracity of American exceptionalism.

We see the rise of police militarization within the parallel contexts of Black nationalism and the systemic disenfranchisement that brings about movements such as Black Lives Matter. The veracity of American exceptionalism is examined from a targeted perspective. In just 56 minutes, we see “an inflammatory, violent and somewhat forgotten moment in American history.” 

This is a must-see documentary for any advocate of social justice.


“The Arrest” by Jonathan Lethem— When It’s Over

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Arrest: A Novel”. Ecco, 2020.

When It’s All Over

Amos Lassen

What happens when all that we have taken for granted no longer works? This is the basic idea behind Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, “The Arrest”. Before the Arrest, Sandy Duplessis had a good life as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.  An old college friend and writing partner, the Peter Todbaum, had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. But now, post-Arrest, nothing is what it was. Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, is in rural Maine where he assists the butcher and delivers the food grown by his sister, Maddy, at her organic farm.

Surprisingly, Todbaum shows up in an extraordinary vehicle: a retrofitted tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor. We learn Todbaum has spent the Arrest crossing the fragmented country and has now come back to the brother and sister with unclear motives.  In the world, everything has stopped and even though we do not know why, it is really not important. What is important is that this is not the world we knew. Nonetheless, the past lives in memories even if we do not want it to do so.The timid and introverted Journeyman is always one step behind, and not in control of his own destiny. He has a problem with Peter Todbaum who is bothersome and manipulative with whom h shares a strange relationship. Peter’s presence in the Journeyman’s life threatens to turn his post-apocalyptic paradise into a show.

With Todbaum’s return, we wonder if everything has “re-begun”. He seems to be something of a ticking bomb. We don’t know much more than that something happened to turn off all electrical equipment and break almost all appliances. Sandy Duplessis’s life has changed from being  a script doctor to a butcher’s assistant/delivery person living in his sister’s commune-like town in rural Maine. We move back and forth from his present circumstances to his life in Hollywood working for Peter Todbaum. They began as colleagues but then Peter made it huge and Sandy just worked for him. Now Todbaum shows up in town with a nuclear powered impossible super car and things happen.

Lethem is an amazing character developer. He has created the kind of characters that are unforgettable. He has also created a world that surprisingly, people want to live in even though it is not a happy place.

This is a strange but fascinating read. Whatever happened is of no real importance and we really only care about the thoughts of the characters. The plot moves quickly as we read aboutunbalanced relationships as we await to learn about true intentions and what happens next.

“Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors” by Adrian Goldsworthy— Father and Son

Goldsworthy, Adrian. “Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors”, Basic Books, 2020.

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

 Adrian Goldsworthy’s forthcoming “Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors” is a look at a father and his son. Alexander the Great’s conquests shook the world. His army crossed thousands of miles, from northern Greece to modern Pakistan; he overthrew the greatest empires of his time and he built a new one in their place. He was a leader who led from the front and he was often wounded just as were his soldiers. Alexander claimed to be the son of a god, but he in actuality he was the son of Philip II. Writer Goldsworthy argues that without the work and influence of his father, it is highly doubtful that Alexander would have achieved so much.

When we think of Philip II of Macedon, we think of  an old man, with  one-eye who was lame from wounds. However, Philip was young and inexperienced when he came to power. He inherited a minor kingdom that was on the verge of being taken apart. He succeeded in making Macedonia dominant throughout Greece and e prepared Alexander to lead his army into war against Persia. It was Philip who created the armies that won Alexander’s victories and assured his place in world history.

This is the definitive dual biography of two men who together reshaped the ancient world. It is filled with scholarship, fine prose, deep analyses, and fair assessment. Goldsworthy examines the complex relationship between father and son and how the failure of the Greek city-states to stop them allowed them to continue to gain Macedonian expansion. We become very aware of the megalomania of Alexander’s near global conquests. Philip and Alexander, father and son, changed the world, for both good and bad.