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THE ART OF LOADING BRUSH

NEW AGRARIAN WRITINGS

Vintage Berry sure to please and instruct his many admirers.

Further cultural and agricultural writings from the dean of modern literary agrarians.

As a novelist, essayist, and poet, Berry (Roots to the Earth, 2016, etc.) has been writing work that is all of a piece for more than half a century; reduced, if it must be, his aim is the old agrarian ideal of standing for what one stands on, defending one’s place on Earth. The author notes his wife’s observation that “my principal asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself,” a gentle jibe that is true, but necessarily so. There’s no end to threats to small farmers, or an economy of health, or “good work,” the opposite of which is “waste of fertility and of the land itself.” Apart from a little peevish attention at the beginning of the book to the thought that old-time Southern agrarianism, its roots in tobacco and tradition, is by definition racist—it isn’t, he insists, and never mind what a postmodern ecocritic might say—Berry looks keenly into the future and the possibilities of locally based economies that are “reasonably coherent, reasonably self-sufficient and self-determining.” If that’s a little ecotopian, so be it. Berry’s essays, continuing arguments begun in The Unsettling of America 40 years ago, will be familiar to longtime readers, blending his farm work with his interests in literature old and new. To them he adds a fine long poem and several new stories set in his Port William, Kentucky, the latter centering on yeoman hero Andy Catlett, who reiterates a Jeffersonian ideal: “If you want people to love their country, let them own a piece of it.” Some of Catlett’s guiding principles align very neatly with the author’s: he counsels against buying anything one doesn’t strictly need and for going out in the world to do good—advice that always stands repeating.

Vintage Berry sure to please and instruct his many admirers.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61902-038-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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