Joan Baum

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. Joan has a long career as a critic and reviewer, writing for, among others, WNYC, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, MIT's Technology Review, Hadassah Magazine and writing on subjects in her dissertation field, the major English Romantic poets. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.

With an eye on reviewing fiction and nonfiction that has regional resonance for Connecticut or Long Island – books written by local authors or books set in the area – Joan considers the timeliness and significance of recently published work: what these books have to say to a broad group of readers today and how they say it in a distinctive or unique manner, taking into account style and structure as well as subject matter.

There’s an old proverb popularized by Mel Brooks that sums up “Fractured Continent,” William Drozdiak’s fine, eminently readable analysis of European politics that made The New York Times Most Notable 100 Books list for 2017.

Walter Isaacson begins his chapter on the world’s most famous painting this way: “And now, the Mona Lisa.” We’re near the end of this handsome, hefty, magnificent exploration into the life, work and times of, arguably, the world’s greatest genius. Throughout, Isaacson invokes two of his previous subjects, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, but declares rightly that the eloquent polymath Leonardo da Vinci was unique and in ways that matter particularly today in our fragmenting world.   

Sadly, presciently, civil rights attorney Lewis Steel wrote the following words in his autobiography, The Butler’s Child, which came out last year: “The hard truth today is that in all the years since Brown and notwithstanding all the other state and federal laws written to promote equal rights that have been passed since the Civil War, racism remains a grave problem in the United States.” That’s Brown, as in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional.

It’s a forceful and confident title that Jill Bialosky gives her unusual memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life. She writes “will” not “can” or “may.” I’m not so sure, nor am I convinced that a favorite book wouldn’t do, or music, with its purported power to soothe the savage breast. Because it’s longer and without meter or rhythm, however, a novel is not as likely as a poem to prompt immediate reaction. In any case, there’s no denying that poetry as consolation, if not salvation, worked for Bialosky and her hope is that it will work for her readers.

James Conroy’s new novel, The Coyote Hunter of Aquidneck Island not only introduces readers to a still rural bit of paradise set in Narragansett Bay, but to little known facts about indigenous New England Indian tribes…and coyotes. And, starting with the opening dialogue, the novel also introduces some good writing that brings together domestic drama, lore about the environment and some little-known Civil War military history.

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