The National Catholic Review

The Lives of Jack London

James L. Haley

Basic Books. $29.95

For those who know Jack London only from their high school days, that is, as a writer of supposedly “young-adult” tales like the novel The Call of the Wild or the supreme short story “To Build a Fire,” this riveting biography by James L. Haley may come as a surprise. London, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 and died not far from there at age 40 (after a physically taxing and alcohol-besotted life) was, during his prime, one of the most popular writers in this country. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt once felt obliged to correct what he mistakenly saw as a “nature fakery” in London’s White Fang: a lynx would never best a wolf in a contest. But T.R. had it backwards: it was the fictional wolf who had triumphed. “The president is evidently a careless reader of my stories,” replied a confident London.

That same robust confidence had led London from an impoverished childhood to a turbulent adolescence as an “oyster pirate,” and then to “lives” as a freewheeling tramp, a so-so student at the University of California, a muckraking journalist, a failed prospector, a war correspondent, a dedicated socialist (in the critical style of a Dorothy Day) and a splendid writer. A tireless one too: London wrote, without fail, 1,000 words each day. Haley successfully brings to life the vanished era of San Francisco in the early 1900s, documents “The Crowd” of writers, artists and bohemians who settled in the city in those years—Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis and Emma Goldman all have cameos—and outlines the political tides upon which rose and fell London’s publishing fortunes.

Unfortunately, the book stints in describing the works for which he gained his fame, and Haley rarely quotes from the novels or short stories. (London’s letters are quoted more frequently.) But the book, like the life of the man his best friend called “Wolf,” never fails to fascinate or entertain.

James Martin

 

Flight of Faith

My Miracle on the Hudson

By Fred Beretta

Saint Benedict Press. $14.95

This is an account of the dramatic emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, written by a passenger (who is also a licensed pilot). “It was a unique event in the modern commercial jet era,” Fred Beretta notes. That all 155 passengers and crew survived will mark this 2009 event indelibly in the minds of millions. This is a slim book, but a careful and thoughtful rendering; the author’s control in recounting harrowing details is a testament to his strong faith—which has also been in evidence among all who shared the experience. As he remarks at the outset, if one reader is “inspired to deepen his trust in God,” the book will have accomplished its purpose.

Time has a way of blurring memory, and so this brief up-close and personal account of the moments leading up to landing in the Hudson River, the heroic rescue efforts that followed, the courage displayed by passengers and crew—along with several color photographs—makes remembering easier. Parish book racks, where they still exist, might make this item available to interested parishioners.

Patricia A. Kossmann

 

The Life We Were Given

Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

By Dana Sachs

Beacon Press. $26.95

Just published, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, this affecting and eye-opening book recounts the airlifting of thousands of babies and children out of South Vietnam. Backed by the United States, the plan was to find homes for these orphans in the States and elsewhere. Except they were not all war orphans. Sachs, who has written about Vietnam for 20 years, teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. To get at the full details of this wrenching story, she focuses on the activities of some adoption agencies, the controversy over the legitimacy of the airlift and the plight of scattered families and refugees. She recounts in moving detail the complexity of the mission, aware that children left behind may fall victim to the Communist regime. Lost birth records, in many instances, regrettably meant lost identities for many adoptees, whose own background—even today—they want to know about.

A balanced presentation of a controversial operation, this book reminds us of the dark underside of all wars.

P.A.K.

 

Many Miles (Audiobook)

By Mary Oliver

Beacon Press. $19.95

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver recorded her first CD/audiobook, At Blackwater Pond, in 2006. Now her publisher has released a second, Many Miles, in which she reads more than 40 of her poems, taken from many of her collected works—an impressive and inspiring literary canon that includes “House of Light,” “Red Bird,” “Why I Wake Early” and four brief, as yet uncollected, poems. The CD is housed in a shrink-wrapped full-cloth package, with ribbon marker and an introductory story on the dynamic between a speaker and a listener. “Oh, what if one had no kept record,” the poet ponders, “of the voice of someone loved and now gone? What an extra dish of sorrow that would be.”

There is a magnetism about Mary Oliver, a lyricism, a keen power of observation—all on grand display in this recording. Hers is a clear, steady and authoritative voice that draws the listener to the power of words, to the image in ways that cannot be experienced by simply reading her books. She is one with nature and the natural world, with simple things and what she calls, in one poem, “the imponderables of life.” Themes range widely—from owls and horses on a Midwest farm, to rivers, stars, “the blessed earth,” her dog Percy (named after Shelley), unrequited love, using imagination and paying attention (the latter two she labels “our life’s work,”), angels and Jesus in Gethsemane.

I sat entranced while listening to this eminently gifted poet, unwavering in her attention to every detail, large and small, always “in the moment.” Her excitement and appreciation of all life is palpable; her delivery is strong, clear, uplifting, rhythmic and soulful. She sees, it often seems, what others do not. Many Miles is a joyful experience. I plan to listen again and again, expecting to receive more each time.

P.A.K.

Book Briefs is written by James Martin, S.J., culture editor, and Patricia A. Kossmann, literary editor, of America.

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