Writings, talks and video

  • Why Movements Matter
    Vivien Labaton and me, pre-Occupy Wall Street, on why political setbacks of recent years make investment in social movements even more urgent.
  • Reclaiming the Moral Life of Philanthropy | MIT World
    Video of my lecture at MIT last fall arguing for a restoration of moral language in philanthropy and in other spheres, like government.
  • PhilanTopic: A 'Flip' Chat With...Gara LaMarche, Senior Fellow, NYU Wagner School of Public Service
    Foundation Center interview with me on the state of human rights ten years after 9/11/01
  • FORA.tv - Building Open Societies: Soros in Conversation
    Conversation I conducted with George Soros and Aryeh Neier in May 2011 on the occasion of the publication of Chuck Sudetic's book about George's philanthropy. I had fun, and George and Aryeh were as relaxed and expansive as they get.
  • FORA.tv - A Conversation with Jeff Raikes and Gara LaMarche
    A conversation at Philanthropy New York in May 2011 between me and the President of the Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes. He's great, it turns out my mike was off so you can barely hear what I am saying, but fast forward to whenever Jeff is on the screen!
  • How Vast the Left-Wing Conspiracy
    Transcript of a November 30 panel at the Hudson Institute with me, Rob Stein of the Democracy Alliance and Byron York of the National Review.
  • The crisis of democracy in America Gara LaMarche - openDemocracy
    Article I published in mid-2005 in Open Democracy, a British-based global web journal, about endangered institutions in the U.S. -- the media, the academy, the courts.
  • Putting the "Human" Back in Human Rights
    Talk I gave earlier in July to the International Human Rights Funders Group, opening with a somewhat shaggy story about the time I presented at my then-kindergarten-aged daughter's class "Career Day."
  • Georgetown Forum on Philanthropy
    Panel I was on with Emmett Carson, Chair of the Council on Foundations, Cecilia Munoz of National Council of La Raza, William Schambra of the Bradley Center on Philanthropy, and Pablo Eisenberg, former director of the Center for Community Change and longtime progressive critic of philanthropy. I agreed more with Bill than Pablo, which makes me worry...
  • Immigrant Communities in the Crossfire
    Talk I gave to San Francisco Bay Area funders. Read it to find out which U.S. President lamented that a weakness of the American character is that there are so few "growlers and kickers" among us.
  • Kennedy Library Forum: Human Rights: Then and Now
    Transcript of a forum a few years ago at the Kennedy Library, where I was on a panel to mark the publication of my friend Jeri Laber's memoir about her work in the human rights movement. Moderated by John Shattuck, an old ACLU colleague who served in various posts in the Clinton State Department and now heads the JFK Library and Foundation. Like most transcripts, my comments read much less coherently than I thought I sounded at the time.
  • Gara LaMarche
    Profile of me from UC-Irvine's Social Science Journal, from an interview I did a year ago when I gave a lecture there. Makes me sound much more noble than I actually am.
  • American Prospect piece on human rights in the United States
    You should check out the special issue of The American Prospect about the growing movement -- ever more urgents in the wake of Abu Ghraib -- to make the United States adhere to international human rights standards. I have a short article surveying a bunch of reports -- all available on the web, with links provided -- that are pioneering in looking at U.S. rights problems through that lens. The rest of the issue is great, too, with pieces by Anthony Lewis, Cass Sunstein, former U.N. High Commissioner and Irish President Mary Robinson, and many others.
  • School of Social Sciences Distinguished Speaker Series
    Apparently there is a video here of the democracy speech I gave at UC-Irvine in January. I'm afraid to look.
  • When Foundations Should Lead -- and When They Should Get Out of the Way
    Speech I gave to the Donor Forum of Wisconsin, containing some thoughts I have been developing about the responsibility of "elites" to speak out, and more familiar -- in the "trade" -- stuff about why foundations should engage in public policy and do more general, multi-year funding of organizations.
  • The Council on Foundations - Remarks Accepting Ylvisaker Award
    Why I was not too popular with the Texas host committee at the Council on Foundations annual meeting in Dallas last year.
  • Speech and Equality: Do We Really Have to Choose?
    1996 NYU Press collection of essays, edited by me, on perceived tensions between free speech and equality: abortion clinic protests, "hate speech," sexual harassment laws. I thought I had bought up all the unsold copies of this extremely low-selling book, but I see they list it on their website. If not available there, I'll sell you one for $11.99 or best offer...
  • The virtues and vices of philanthropy
    Article in a conservative philanthropy journal about what foundations do well and poorly.
  • Compassionate Aversionism
    2001 Nation review of two books connected with the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based conservative think tank. Still seems highly relevant, more than three years into Bush II.
  • Suppose We Had a Real Democracy in the United States? A Time for Imagination
    Speech I gave at the University of California at Irvine, January 28, 2004.


Barbara LaMarche 1930-2022

We celebrated the life of my Mom, who died at 91 on March 13, on March 18. Here are the reflections and remembrances I shared then.   

 I guess the first thing I should say, on behalf of our mother, is that she is very sorry she can’t be here today – I mean sitting out there with the rest of you. 6C45EB0D-D4DF-4EFA-92B4-6D668BDD4233 The sash across the back of her casket, reading “I’d rather not be here,” is not some little gag that my siblings and I dreamed up – it was one of her two oft-expressed wishes for after her death, the other that we inscribe her tombstone with the words* on the little laminated card you were given, from the 1958 song “This is All I Ask,” made popular by Tony Bennett. Of course she would like to have been present at this occasion to hear all the things being said about her. And who knows?  Maybe she can.

Actually, in going through Mom’s apartment these past few days, we found more notes about her post-life wishes than we had been aware of when we met with Eddie Dolan on Monday to plan today’s service and burial.  Thank God we got most of them right, but on one point – “would like to have my wake while I’m still alive” – well, I’m sorry we couldn’t deliver on that one, Mom.

It’s a little strange to be doing this with Mom over there, because as you all know, she didn’t miss a trick, and you would certainly hear about it if you were eating a potato chip too loudly or God forbid she was your passenger in a car and you didn’t pull out quickly enough into traffic or drove too close to the center of the road.  It’s hard to shake the expectation of her running critique.  But I’ll try.

There are many things to be said about my Mom, of course, and David, Zoe and Zack have said some of them beautifully, but the first and foremost is that she mattered.  All human beings matter, of course, but my Mom conquered every room she entered.  Frequently funny, often profane and  opinionated, armed for most of her life with Scotch or a glass of red wine and always a cigarette, teasing and flirting, belting out “It Had to Be You” -- it will be a long time before her memory fades, before those of us who loved her will come to terms with the fact that she’s not here.

From the time I was little, friends would meet and be captivated by my Mom – I swear Tom Kendzia and my school friends and cousins hung around the house so much not to see us kids, but so as not to miss any of her bracingly funny and outrageous utterances, to eat her great cooking, to hang out with a mother not quite in the Leave It To Beaver/Donna Reed Show mold.  A little more like Lucille Ball crossed with Mae West and a bit of Elaine Stritch. 

Mom Goofing Around

She grew old, but never quite became old. My Mom kept a pool cue in the trunk of her car at all times, and in her mid-eighties, I saw her triumph over four 26D5861C-3A4E-45D4-BE32-602CB6B3A25D men half her age in a row – I was one of them. The only accidents she had in her late 80s and early 90s were far from typical for her age cohort – being flung from a rowing machine at the Y and falling out of a chaise lounge in front of her apartment during one of her daily tanning sessions. This is a woman asked a year or two ago by my sister what supplies she would need during the COVID quarantine who submitted this terse list:  Pinot Noir, Marlboro Light 100s and bacon.

D915ED01-9D33-4DF2-BC40-DC6995682937We can tell these wonderful stories about my Mom forever – and we will --but before we lay her to rest today I want you all to reflect that one of the most important things to know about my Mom -- and some of you do know it -- is that her start in life was pretty hard.  She didn’t grow up in material poverty, though she shared a bed with a sibling until she was practically grown, and could take only one bath a week, as was not uncommon in the Depression era she was raised in.  But she did grow up in emotional poverty.  The last of her parents’ six children, she was largely neglected as their marriage deteriorated.  In the last few days, going through her things, we came across this note she wrote, to no one in particular:

    “When I was about six or seven years of age, I lived next door to Mrs. Mary Buchanan who had a child my own age.  Apparently my own mother had left home and my siblings couldn’t handle the responsibility of taking care of me. My father worked third shift at the Post Office and therefore was not able to oversee my needs.  I remember getting out of bed each morning and going next door to sit in Mrs. Buchanan’s kitchen to wait for her to get out of bed.  She then gave me breakfast, saw to it that I was clean and braided my hair for school.  Sometimes I would find myself at her doorstep in the evening and she would soothe my fears and send me back to bed.  She fed me and made identical sweaters for her daughter [who great up to be her best friend Janet] and me.  I’ll never forget her kindness to me when I needed it most.”

Is it any wonder that my mother became an ardent fan of Shirley Temple, her famous contemporary, who so often played an orphan girl who found a loving Shirley home?  (Not to mention being a pretty good singer and tap dancer as well.) Is it any wonder that she was such an active volunteer, the favorite aunt -- if truth be told -- of ALL her nieces and nephews, that in time she made her own home a sanctuary for those who needed an ear or a hug?

My Mom’s life did not always follow the course of a storybook fantasy.  She struggled all her life with insecurity, and often found it hard to trust the love of others. No relationship with Barbara LaMarche was always easy.  But her intensity was worth every minute of the occasional drama, and it was the lodestar of our lives.  She loved and protected David and Barbara and me ferociously when we were young.  How many times did I have to plead with her not to march down to Immaculate Conception to grab the nuns by their wimples and give them a piece of her mind about some real or perceived injustice?  By the way, that passion extended to dozens of letters to the Letter to the SunWesterly Sun, a robust sampling of which we’ll have on display at the Haversham this afternoon, but here are a few lines from one about one of her favorite topics, discrimination against smokers:  “You mentioned that children growing up with smoking parents have more diseases than most children.  I have three grown children who are exceptionally intelligent and free from any debilitating illnesses!”

Mom had a little difficulty letting us go as we grew independent and formed our own households and families, no doubt because abandonment was a constant theme of her early life.  But in her last years, even taking into account the significant memory loss of the final few, she came to see and accept the love of her family, to see herself in us and to know that we see so much of our best selves in her.

93CED938-02D2-4700-9F01-9A7577557358Her wit, her hospitality, her intelligence, her caring in Barbara.  Her naturally blonde hair – no, wait a minute – her love of music, her Mom and David loyalty, her independence in David.  As for me, I cannot imagine who I would be without her. I can be judgmental, profane and impatient myself – thanks, Mom! But she also made me feel that I was the most special child on earth, that there was nothing that I could not do, and that confidence has helped me to achieve more than I could ever have dreamed.  She showed me a love of words and reading and writing which are central to my life.  She was the most resilient person I have ever met, when she took a knock she got up stronger the next day.  I learned to look forward, rarely back.  She made our home a welcoming place, and I love to play host.  She had all the time in the world to spend with
Last birthday with Momthe old and reach out to the young, and I try to carry that on in my work and life. She could not keep her mouth shut about what she thought was wrong, and well, look what I’ve done for a living as a kind of professional crusader.  I know she found it hard to believe sometimes, but it is true:  whatever is good about me bears her indelible stamp.


The last years of her life were in many ways the best, and how many people who have walked this earth can say that when their time is done?  She saw her 9A0D8D8D-5B1F-480B-8C3B-49C446AFB471
33C55EB5-C4B9-4FAE-A6B4-466C9A7C185Bchildren successful and secure, loved Lisa’s entry into her life, and watched her four grandchildren grow into fine adults.  She delighted in the bonus of four great-grandchildren, and forged a beautiful relationship with them as their beloved GG that assures she will be remembered with love and joy into the next century.  And she had the sweet good fortune, when she was long past looking for it, but when she was finally ready for it, of finding love with the wonderful Phil Newbury – and on behalf of our family, we love you too, Phil, we delighted in the happiness you brought to our mother and your exquisite caring and attention to her, and you’re a part of our family forever.

GG and kids

With her memory failing and multiple mortal illnesses, those of us who cared about and cared for my Mom feared the time would come when we would not be able to keep her at home.  But home is where she died early Sunday morning, very peacefully in her sleep.  The manner of her passing is a great blessing, but still her loss has hit very hard.  She was a vital and vibrant presence, my most pungent critic and my fiercest advocate, and I will miss her as long as I live.

And so, as Mom would croon so many Sunday afternoons at the Harborview, or wherever the band was playing:  we’ll have to be glad, just to be sad thinking of you.  “Some others I’ve seen, might never be mean, might never be cross, or try to be boss, but they wouldn’t do, for nobody else, gave us a thrill, with all of our faults, we love you still, it had to be you, wonderful you, it had to be you.”

Mom with the band

And let the music play, as long as there's a song to sing, and I will stay younger than spring


The four of us

On the day of my Mom's funeral, the wonderful staff at StoryCorps sent me this beautiful piece drawn from the conversations I had with her in the StoryCorps booth at Grand Central Terminal in 2006.

December 24, 2010

December 27, 2005

September 14, 2005

December 31, 2004

June 20, 2004

Things I liked reading, watching or listening to

  • Lauren Groff: Florida

    Lauren Groff: Florida
    I've been wanting to read more Lauren Groff ever since I heard her read one of her short stories on the New Yorker podcast, and this collection did not disappoint, though it confirms my instinct that central Florida would be very low on the list of places I would like to live, as in: "my cautious husband and my small boys ... had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat."

  • Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends: A Novel

    Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends: A Novel
    OK, I am a little late in climbing aboard the bandwagon for Sally Rooney, the young Irish novelist. This is her first book, and I'm now eager to read the second, Normal People. Aptly named, because of all her prodigious gifts, capturing the way friends, colleagues and lovers converse is the strongest.

  • Adina Hoffman: Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures (Jewish Lives)

    Adina Hoffman: Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures (Jewish Lives)
    I don't think I would have liked Ben Hecht very much had we lived at the same time, but he was certainly a force, from his days as a brawling Chicago reporter and columnist, to his virtual invention (with writing partner Charles MacArthur) of many of the core genres of motion picture stories to his ferocious advocacy on behalf of the murdered Jews of Europe at a time when few would listen. Hecht was well-known in his time but barely remembered now, and this short biography restores him to some measure of notice.

  • Phyllis Rose: Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters (Jewish Lives)

    Phyllis Rose: Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters (Jewish Lives)
    This spring a few books were published on Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe and their circle, so I opted for the shortest one, in the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, which also published good books I read on Emma Goldman and Louis Brandeis. I came away with a much keener appreciation for Stieglitz not just as a photographer, but as a champion of photography as an art form and not just a technical thing and as an evangelist for American art in a time when the establishment thought only Old Masters should hang on museum walls.

  • Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

    Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
    First graphic novel I've read. A little digressive, but I think that's part of the appeal. Along with Jeannette Winterson's "Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?", which I finished a few weeks ago, this is my Difficult Mother Memoir Month.

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

    Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus
    Two sisters, mainly in London, over thirty years. This is one of those books that takes longer to read than it might because you are savoring every beautifully-crafted sentence. Here's a few, from a character challenging a human rights argument: "I have my own form of ineffectuality, but I don't dress it up as morality. I decline to join those who babble about reforms for which they will never lift a finger. We are in the age of the open mouth and the unlifted finger; of those who must talk faster than the world can find them out."

  • Marilynne Robinson: Gilead: A Novel

    Marilynne Robinson: Gilead: A Novel
    This beautiful book has been around for some years, and I'd heard good things about it, but wasn't moved to read it until I heard the remarkable Marilynne Robinson on NPR a few months ago. Framed as the dying recollections of a longtime Congregationalist minister in the midwest, it's deep in learning and spirituality, the kind of rich novel that, while not a page-turner in any conventional sense, you stay an extra stop on the subway to finish reading.

  • Erik Larson: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

    Erik Larson: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
    The person who first suggested this to me found disturbing parallels between the rise of the Tea Party and the early days of the Nazis. That's a stretch for me, but I was shocked to learn that one element in the costly years of refusal to take Hitler seriously and see his aims clearly was the casual anti-Semitism of many U.S. officials.

  • John Updike: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams

    John Updike: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams
    Sweet little wisp of a book, nice to read in the wake of the Red Sox 2011 collapse -- a champion writer on a champion player.

  • : Bill Cunningham New York

    Bill Cunningham New York
    This is a delight to watch -- Cunningham, who does a few pages each Sunday for the Times Style section, is a tastemaker/watcher, ascetic and true egalitarian.

  • Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

    Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
    Read this and the two that follow in the trilogy -- written for young adults, but I loved it -- in rapid succession a few weeks ago. Dystopian American continent with a revolution brewing, sparked by a fierce, stoic heroine who ought to join forces with Lisbeth Salander and Kalinda Sharma to rule the world.

  • Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

    Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
    Not the kind of book I usually read, but I'm fascinated -- in the social sphere, mostly -- by how ideas take root, and this wide-ranging, digressive book is chock-full of interesting factoids, like how Gutenberg couldn't have come up with the printing press without the earlier uses of the screw press for wine, etc.

  • Jody Allen Randolph: Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland

    Jody Allen Randolph: Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland
    With the failure and disgrace of the church and the state in Ireland, only writers seem to hold any moral authority. This collection of interviews with Colm Toibin, Theo Dorgan, Roddy Doyle and others -- all of whom have much that is intelligent to say about their work and about Irish society -- is a great read.

  • Charles McCarry: Tears of Autumn: A Paul Christopher Novel (Paul Christopher Novels)

    Charles McCarry: Tears of Autumn: A Paul Christopher Novel (Paul Christopher Novels)
    John LeCarre-ish spy story about the Kennedy assassination, a really good read in a genre I have been away from for a while. One in series of Paul Christopher novels, and I look forward to reading the others.

  • Helen Simonson: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)

    Helen Simonson: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
    One of the loveliest books I've read in some time, a pitch-perfect story of an unlikely couple coming together over the obstacles of their respective cultures. And a first novel, too.

  • Sarah Silverman: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee

    Sarah Silverman: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee
    Not as snarky as I expected. While not as dazzling or literate as, say, Russell Brand's My Booky Wook (another in the genre of memoirs by outrageous comics), it's surprisingly personal, frank, and in a few places, almost touching.

  • Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage: A Novel

    Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage: A Novel
    Hadn't read Anne Tyler in a while, but this novel of a long, failed marriage captures well the couple's growing mystification about how little they understand one another, punctuated by moments of recalling what drew them together in the first place.

  • Kate O'Brien: The Land of Spices (Virago Modern Classics)

    Kate O'Brien: The Land of Spices (Virago Modern Classics)
    I thank whoever, some time ago, turned me on to this great novel, set in a convent school in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century. Beautifully rendered and nuanced main characters -- the middle-aged nun who heads the school and a girl who is its youngest-ever student -- as they grapple with doubts and challenges over ten years or so. A feminist novel in many ways. I had never heard of Kate O'Brien, who died in 1974, but want to read her other stuff now.

  • Albie Sachs: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law (0)

    Albie Sachs: The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law (0)
    A beautifully written, honest book by one of South Africa's leading freedom fighters and for fifteen years one of the founding judge's of the country's Constitutional Court, one of the most impressive judiciaries in the world expounding what may be the world's best constitution. What is wonderful about this is the rare window into judging and into Albie Sachs amazing spirit and intellect.

  • Russell Brand: My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up

    Russell Brand: My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up
    Never heard of Russell Brand, a stand-up who is well known in the U.K., until his funny turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Really came to like him when I heard him on Elvis Mitchell's NPR radio interview show. While apparently recovering now from drug and sex addiction -- subjects of much of this book -- he remains (maybe even moreso) extremely funny, stunningly articulate and well-read, and bracingly honest about himself and others. Tales of his wild-man days go on a bit too much for me, but I really loved this, despite its offputting title.

  • Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage)

    Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage)
    Apparently I am a latecomer to the Stieg Larsson party, thanks to my Aunt Jackie, who gave me the first book in his crime trilogy for my birthday this summer. I just read most of the nearly 600 pages of this on the long plane ride back from South Africa, and -- I guess obviously -- found it gripping. I love the offbeat heroine, an anti-social punkish 20-something hacker named Lisbeth Salander, and am eager to read the next (and, sadly, last, since Larsson died of heart problems five years ago) books in the series. The other main character, Mikael Blomquist, is a little too obviously based on Larsson himself, as a leftist investigative journalist, and women in the book can't seem to stop throwing themself at him. A little too Woody Allenish for my tastes. But overall, a great read.

  • Colm Toibin: Brooklyn: A Novel

    Colm Toibin: Brooklyn: A Novel
    I think I have now read everything that Colm Toibin has written. This, his latest, is a very quiet and even slow account of a young woman's emigration to the U.S. from the west of Ireland in the 1950's, wonderfully evocative of Brooklyn in that time. He achingly captures the loss and longing of being far from home, in a time when being on the other side of the ocean meant you had to miss the funeral of a close family member. Very perceptive, as in his recent collection of short stories, about mothers, only this time with their daughters as well as their sons.

  • Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel

    Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel
    Many thanks to my friends Jack and Holly for sending a copy of this, once they had heard my story at dinner about my grandmother and my father's visits to her. I now see why they were so determined I read it. And I want to read much more of Sebastian Barry, an Irish writer and playwright who was new to me.

  • Siobhan Dowd: Solace of the Road

    Siobhan Dowd: Solace of the Road
    The last book, I believe, in a remarkable run of several that my late friend Siobhan Dowd wrote before her early death from cancer a few years ago. Like the others, a "young adult" novel so beautifully written and wise it is compelling and accessible to anyone.

  • Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance [ABRIDGED] [AUDIOBOOK]

    Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance [ABRIDGED] [AUDIOBOOK]
    I realized just before the election that I might be the last person in America to have read Obama's first book, but decided for some reason to download the audiobook version, which he reads himself. The book lives up to everything I've heard about it -- what a Presidential memoir to look forward to! -- but a cool surprise is that Obama the reader turns out to be a terrific mimic, doing all the voices, of Kenyan relatives, Chicago street activists, etc. himself.

  • Tony Earley: The Blue Star: A Novel

    Tony Earley: The Blue Star: A Novel
    Sequel to the wonderful novel Jim the Boy. The first one, about a ten-year old in rural North Carolina in the 1930s, looked and at times read like a book for young readers, though it was beautiful and profound. This one, too. Now Jim is about to graduate high school, fall in love, and deal with a war raging in Europe and Asia.

  • Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

    Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid
    A member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission undertakes a series of visits to prison to talk with the most notorious killer of the apartheid regime, to ask herself, and us: what might I have in common with someone who has come to personify evil?

  • Honor Moore: The Bishop's Daughter: A Memoir

    Honor Moore: The Bishop's Daughter: A Memoir
    Honor Moore, the poet and playwright (who I know a bit from serving on the PEN Board together) writes about her late father, Paul Moore (who I knew from Human Rights Watch work together), the Bishop of New York. The book has garnered attention, and criticism from some of Honor's eight (!) siblings and others, for "outing" her father's bisexuality, but it is in no way sensationalistic. Part autobiography, part biography, I liked it very much, and since I met Paul Moore later in his career, my admiration for him grew through his daughter's reconstruction of his transformation from a patrician child of privilege bound for Wall Street to a progressive and outspoken pastor acting and speaking on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. It is poignant that he lived at a time when he could not also give voice to the full rein of his personhood.

  • : State of Play (Miniseries)

    State of Play (Miniseries)
    Terrific BBC miniseries from 2003, a six-part political thriller with Bill Nighy, James McEvoy, Polly Walker and a great young Scottish actress (or at least she did a good Edinburgh accent) named Kelly MacDonald. I don't remember how I heard about it, but I couldn't stop watching it.

  • Jonny Steinberg: Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey Through Africa's AIDS Epidemic

    Jonny Steinberg: Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey Through Africa's AIDS Epidemic
    Jonny Steinberg is a South African writer who has in several books shown an amazing ability to burrow into communities not his own, gain their trust, and write about their lives and conflicts with great sensitivity. In this book -- which I read in its original South African version, Three Letter Plague, he tells the twin stories of a white AIDS clinic doctor from Doctors Without Borders and a young black entrepreneur who, for reasons of his own, declines to get tested for AIDS despite the availability of services. Steinberg is now in New York working on a book about Liberian immigrants in Staten Island.

  • Amy Bloom: Away: A Novel

    Amy Bloom: Away: A Novel
    I've always been a big fan of Amy Bloom's work, most of which is short stories about the emotional lives of educated urban and suburban types (she's a psychotherapist based in Middletown, Connecticut). This is a sprawling historical novel that ranges from Russia to Alaska (with Manhattan, Seattle and other places in between) in the early part of the 20th century, as the heroine searches for her daughter, who she hopes is the only other survivor of the pogrom that begins the book. Some find its plot over the top, but I loved it, and admired Bloom's ability to hold it all together on a canvas much vaster than her usual ones.

  • Wilfrid Sheed: The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

    Wilfrid Sheed: The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty
    It took me a while to adjust to his style -- itself a kind of jazzy riff most of the time -- I really enjoyed Wilfred Sheed's sketches of the giants of American popular song, not just the Mount Rushmore figures of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, but Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Cy Coleman. It's delicious, it's delightful, it's de-lovely.

  • Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

    Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader: A Novella
    Lovely short novel based on the premise that the Queen of England -- never named, I think, but obviously Elizabeth -- happens upon a library van while walking her dogs and takes out a book. Then another, and another, until her late-life passion for reading upends her life and transforms her monarchy in funny and charming ways.

  • Dalia Sofer: The Septembers of Shiraz

    Dalia Sofer: The Septembers of Shiraz
    Really fine novel about a Jewish gem dealer and his family in the early days after the fall of the Shah and the rule of the mullahs in Iran. Though it is beautifully written and gripping, it seems to me more a book about families than politics, but the gem dealer's arrest and torture, and his family's eventual escape through being smuggled over the Turkish border,somehow put me in mind of the poisonous national mood in this country, today, over the treatment of prisoners and immigrants. How far we have fallen; I doubt I would have made those connections even ten years ago.

  • Alain De Botton: The Architecture of Happiness

    Alain De Botton: The Architecture of Happiness
    Nice companion to Winifred Gallagher's recent House Thinking, though on a grander scale both of habitation and geography. His anti-Corbusier comments rival Jane Jacobs': "A city laid out on apparently rational grounds, where different specialized facilities...are separated from one another across a vast terrain connected by motorways, deprives its inhabitants of the pleasures of incidental discoveries and presupposes that we march from place to place with a sense of unflagging purpose. But whereas we may leave the house with the ostensible object of consulting a book in a library, we may nevertheless be delighted on the way by the signt of the fishmonger laying out his startled, bug-eyed catch on sheets of ice, by workmen housing patterned sofas into apartment blocks, by leaves opening up their tender green palms to the spring sunshne, or by a girl with chestnut hair and glasses reading a book at the bus stop."

  • Alexander Waugh: Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family

    Alexander Waugh: Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family
    Stories about one of the most prolific writing families ever, by a fifth-generation insider. In addition to the usual stories of boarding-school cruelties and youthful gay couplings, the Waughs seem to have specialized in alternately intense or neglectful parenting -- either rank favoritism (Evelyn Waugh, whose own father made no secret of his bizarrely romantic attachment to his older brother, Alec, carried on the tradition with one of his daughters, treating the rest of his children as inconvenient disruptions.) Yet they were all quite funny, which is supposed to be redeeming.

  • : Sweet Land - A Love Story

    Sweet Land - A Love Story
    Lovely 2005 film by Ali Selim about immigrant famers in Southern Minnesota. Beautiful big-sky setting, but of greatest interest, beyond the developing love story, is the prejudice which greeted German newcomers -- very similar to what is faced by Mexicans in America today.

  • Yankev Glatshteyn: Emil and Karl

    Yankev Glatshteyn: Emil and Karl
    Lovely translation -- done by a friend, Jeffrey Shandler -- from a Yiddish book by Yankev Glatshteyn about two boys whose families are torn apart by the Nazis in 1940 Vienna. Though written for young people, it is a gripping and affecting read for, as they say, readers of all ages.

  • : The House on 92nd Street (Fox Film Noir)

    The House on 92nd Street (Fox Film Noir)
    Saw a little blurb about this 1945 noir film in the Times when it was released on DVD a few months ago, and since I live on 92nd Street, I rented it our of neighborhood pride, though it turns out to be EAST 92nd Street. Bizarre docudrama which is almost pure FBI propaganda about catching Nazi spies in the Second World War. Many of the FBI people, including Hoover, play themselves, but are no less wooden than the actual actors like Lloyd Nolan. Not a bit of humor or irony in it.

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

    Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
    An extraordinary read -- how Lincoln triumphed over several much better-known and connected rivals to win the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination, then put them all in the cabinet, in time winning their deep respect, admiration and loyalty. And it might well be called "Management Secrets of Abraham Lincoln" and sold on the business shelf in airport bookstores. See my post of August 9.

  • Phil LaMarche: American Youth: A Novel

    Phil LaMarche: American Youth: A Novel
    Not a relative, though the 30-year old LaMarche, who grew up in New Hampshire and upstate New York, has the same name as my father, grandfather and actually, me (Gara being my middle name). I would have bought it just for the novelty value, but it's a gripping, spare story of an adolescent struggling with changes in himself and the world around him.

  • Elisabeth Sifton: The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War

    Elisabeth Sifton: The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War
    "God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other." This famous 20th century prayer, used among other places in A.A. meetings, was composed during the Second World War by the author's father, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. One of the gems of this social history/memoir is the discovery, or reminding, that Morningside Heights in the 1940s was for men of the cloth like Virginia for statesmen (sorry, I'm using these non-gender neutral terms advisedly, given the times) in the late 18th century -- an amazing confluence of minds and consciences, including Niebuhr and others at Union Theological, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Jewish Theological Seminary, Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church, and Father Barry Ford of Corpus Christi and Columbia, all just a few blocks apart.

  • Nicholas Lemann: Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War

    Nicholas Lemann: Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War
    Perhaps you thought the South lost the Civil War. Think again. Nick Lemann's heartbreaking, angering and illuminating account of Reconstruction tells the story of how terrorist violence against newly-freed Blacks and their Republican allies -- kept at a "respectable" distance from Democratic leaders and met with virtual impunity from the federal government -- undid the Civil War and sapped the empowering Constitutional amendments of any meaning for nearly one hundred years.

  • Barry Werth: 31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today

    Barry Werth: 31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today
    You wouldn't think that a day-by-day account of the first month of the Ford Adminstration would be gripping, but the account of the pardon politics that ended Ford's honeymooon actually is. Haig comes across as a snake, Rumsfeld an ambitious schemer, Cheney a sphinx, Nixon a head case, and Ford an essentially decent man. I was especially fascinated by Werth's account of the young Ford's shuttle diplomacy between his mother and his birth father, Leslie King, which he suggests provided a get-it-all-behind-you template for the Nixon pardon forty years later.

  • : The Merv Griffin Show - 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time

    The Merv Griffin Show - 40 of the Most Interesting People of Our Time
    I used to watch Merv Griffin in the late afternoons after school -- maybe he was syndicated in the late 1960's. You wouldn't think of him as a significant cultural figure -- though he has a real talent for making money, having invented Jeopardy and numerous other cash-producing shows -- but these exceprts from his interviews contain a lot of gold, with many articulate cultural icons. Orson Welles is shown in his last appearance anywhere, just a few hours before he died; Richard Burton is interviewed on a movie set in Pennsylvania, talking about the benefits of communism, while waiting for an angry Liz Taylor, who's heard he gave an expensive ring to a cocktail waitress, to show up in town.

  • : Julia Child - The French Chef

    Julia Child - The French Chef
    These are a real hoot, but you also learn a lot -- why string beans should be cooked in a giant pot of ragingly boiling water, then doused with cold water, for example. For those like me more familar with the Saturday Night Live parody than the real article, these original WGBH French chef shows from the early 1960's are a revelation and a treat.

  • Talent Given Us: The Talent Given Us

    Talent Given Us: The Talent Given Us
    I have a habit of making lists of books I want to read, CDs I want to own, and movies I want to see. The first two I keep track of on my Amazon.com wish list, which is why it's enormous; the movies I keep in a little notebook which over time I transfer, once they have left the theatre, to my Netflix queue. But by the time the movie arrives from Netflix I have often forgotten why I wanted to see it in the first place. So it was with The Talent Given Us, a low-budget indie film that -- I now have been able to reconstruct -- I became interested in after reading Manohla Dargis's Times review. When I popped it in the DVD player, I had no idea what to expect, and for most of it thought I was watching a reality-show type documentary, in which a late-middle-aged Upper West Side couple -- he a shambling, mumbly character, she sharp-tongued and mercurial -- decide to take a road trip, collecting two adult daughters along the way, to see their estranged son in California. Having watched it, I still don't know how much is reality and how much fiction -- the estranged son is the film's director -- but it was worth the trip. Try it.

  • Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle : A Memoir

    Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle : A Memoir
    I had never heard of Jeannette Walls -- a writer and journalist who is currently an MSNBC contributor -- until this memoir of her extremely unorthodox childhood was published last year to ecstatic reviews. They were deserved. Walls and her three siblings lived a bohemian, nomadic and occasionally Dickensian existence with her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. When each in turn escaped to New York -- they had pretty good coping skills thanks to having parents who virtually washed their hands of their care and feeding -- the parents eventually followed, landing up homeless. Much of this book, which chronicles the most irresponsible parenting, or lack thereof, made me angry, but Walls, while fully acknowledging her parents' deep faults, is nevertheless able with distance and grace to appreciate the good things she absorbed from these much-too-free spirits.

  • Ki-Duk Kim: 3-Iron

    Ki-Duk Kim: 3-Iron
    A homeless man roams the streets of Seoul leaving menu cards on the doorknobs of homes and apartments (kind of a cross between the ubiquitous Chinese menus shoved under doors in New York apartments and hotel Do Not Disturb cards), and when he returns to find them still there, he breaks in and makes himself comfortable, fixing appliances, cooking meals and taking a bath. In one home he is surprised to find he is not alone -- a woman abused by her husband is present. They form a strange Bonnie-and-Clyde relationship when she begins to join him on his rounds, eventually the husband comes back into the picture and causes problems for both. When the movie was over, I realized that neither of the main characters had uttered a word.

  • : The Best of Youth

    The Best of Youth
    This 2004 Italian film is 400 minutes long, so it's a big commitment. Originally a miniseries on Italian TV, when it was released theatrically here, it was shown in two installments, and the recently-released DVD, which I got through Netflix, is on two discs. I became aware of it through its surprise appearance on a number of end-of-the-year Ten Best lists, though I had hardly met anyone who'd seen it. But now that I have, I can say it's really worth the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if, like me, you wished it to be longer. Follows a group of family and friends through about 35 years, from the 1966 Florence flood, through the Red Brigades, to the present day. A wonderful mix of politics and family, social ills and advances, personal demons and graces.

  • Paul Haven: Two Hot Dogs with Everything

    Paul Haven: Two Hot Dogs with Everything
    My former nursery school student's book -- see posting at left. For 8-12 year olds and baseball fans of all ages.

  • Taylor Branch: At Canaan's Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68

    Taylor Branch: At Canaan's Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68
    Still reading this gripping final volume of Taylor Branch's King biography. King remains complex and impressive; LBJ (more prominent in this one) taking great strides for civil rights (his 1965 voting rights speech to a joint session of Congress, one of the best by any President, can move you to tears) while sinking into the Vietnam mire; this book so far raises one urgent question for me: why is the name of J. Edgar Hoover, King's racist, lawless persecutor, still on a taxpayer-supported federal building?

  • Frederick Brosen: Still New York

    Frederick Brosen: Still New York
    With an introduction by Ric Burns. Beautiful, virtually photographic watercolors of New York buildings, some familiar landmarks, but my favorites are ordinary blocks in Chinatown or the meatpacking district. Originals are hanging in the Museum of the City of New York until February 26, if you can catch them.

  • Laura Pausini: Escucha

    Laura Pausini: Escucha
    Italian pop star singing in Spanish -- apparently there's an Italian version available too. Very appealing.

  • Charles Peters: Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Willkie!" Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World

    Charles Peters: Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Willkie!" Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World
    How Wendell Willkie, a businessman who'd never held political office, got to be FDR's opponent in the 1940 election, when the President sought a groundbreaking (and controversial) third term, and why it was important. (Because Willkie, alone among the leading Republican contenders, who also included Robert Taft, Thomas Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg, was a staunch internationalist, strengthening FDR's hand in the march toward involvement in World War II.) The 26-year-old Gerald Ford, accompanied by his girlfriend of the time, a New York model; the 15-year-old Gore Vidal, with his blind grandfather, Senator Gore; and the aged wido of President Benjamin Harrison? What do these three people have in common? They were all in the bleachers watching the action at the 1940 Republican Convention in Philadelphia.

  • Terry Gross: All I Did Was Ask : Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists

    Terry Gross: All I Did Was Ask : Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists
    People -- well, actually, two or three of my eleven regular readers -- have been asking me to post more book recommendations, so I am going to try, but the sad truth is I am reading less lately. Over the weekend in L.A., though, I stopped by a favorite bookstore, Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard -- which has a really good film/tv section, as you might expect -- and came across this collection of excerpts from Terry Gross Fresh Air interviews with artists of various kinds. People have been telling me about Terry Gross for years, but I have never actually listened to Fresh Air. I might start. The book, which has conversations with everyone from Albert Brooks to Mary Karr (who memorably describes men's view of foreplay as "erotic cheese and crackers") lends itself to intermittent reading -- a kind of snacking, to borrow Karr's metaphor.

  • : Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Season One

    Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Season One
    My brother gave me this for Christmas, kind of a nostalgia trip -- though the show is as old as I am, so we must have watch it in reruns years later. My favorite episode, "Breakdown," involves Joseph Cotten as a hard-edged businessman paralyzed in a car accident and presumed dead who desperately tries to communicate to his rescuers, then to the coroner, that he is alive through the one muscle he controls -- one of his pinkies. The best treats of this series, though, are Hitchcock's droll introductions, one of the reasons he is to this day one of the few film directors with any kind of real public recognition.

  • : Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

    Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
    The Times this Christmas morning has a piece by Dan Barry celebrating the ersatz holiday pleasures of his childhood, like spray-on snow. I have been unable to convert my children to the joys of this 1962 TV classic, which I was happy to rediscover on DVD a few years ago -- my favorite among the many renderings of "A Christmas Carol," for which I am one of the all-time suckers. If you check it out, you will find it has a fabulous Jule Styne score.

  • Peter Pouncey: Rules for Old Men Waiting : A Novel

    Peter Pouncey: Rules for Old Men Waiting : A Novel
    Beautifully written novel, his first, by the former President of Amherst, Peter Pouncey, Dean of Columbia College when I arrived there in 1972, not that he knows me from Adam. Hope for us all.