The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools
Mr. Gross, an acid critic of public affairs, uses a wide array of statistics and a certain amount of anecdote and quotation to demonstrate that our school system has fallen into the hands of people with small ambitions and second-rate brains. The news media tend to cover this subject piecemeal -- a poor showing on the latest international test of this or that. Mr. Gross covers the field and presents a comprehensive picture of a bad situation from respectable historical root to current wilting branch. He offers a list of possible corrections, but warns that reforms will not be easy. The status quo provides a safe haven for the lazy, the dull-witted, and the red-tape weavers. A lot of parents will have to organize and raise a lot of protest if major changes are to occur. Mr. Gross has issued a call to arms.
Seven months before her death, in 1967, McCullers told an interviewer that she planned an autobiography because she "became an established literary figure overnight, and I was much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed"; she hoped that her story might prepare future artists to accept such a situation better. This generous scheme was never carried out. Crippled by a series of strokes, reduced to slow and painful dictation, McCullers was unable to establish any direct connection between early success and juvenile folly, which appears to have consisted of a bad marriage -- an error too common to be attributed to literary position. The "Illumination" of the title refers to the moments in which she either recognized the makings of a story or saw how to construct recalcitrant material. There has to have been a process leading to such insights, but this she didn't explore. Probably no fiction writer should be expected to undertake psychological archaeology, much less reveal the content of such a dig. Regardless of its limitations, this autobiography was a heroic last-ditch effort. It might have been a very different book if McCullers had lived to finish it.
The Crime of Olga Arbyelina
Olga, Princess Arbyelina, first appears in 1947, drenched and half naked, sitting dazedly on a riverbank beside a dead man. The French police, after overhauling everyone in the odd little colony of Russian expatriates where Olga manages the library, decide that the death was an accident and dismiss Olga's claim that she killed the man. The question that intrigues the reader is what crime, if any, Olga has committed, and why. Mr. Makine explores that problem with an interweaving of history and personal character. His heroine's life has been a road of wild ups and downs. Along the way she has lost the ability to appreciate or judge events. She sees episodes as random, without logical cause or predictable result. She retains, however, an intense sensitivity to atmosphere, which entitles Mr. Makine to make brilliant use of his ability to evoke the natural world of changing skies and shifting winds. One can smell wet woods and hear the rustle of falling snow in his prose. The semi-detachment that has enabled Olga to survive years of confusion finally fails her, and it is left to the reader to decide whether she is a criminal or a victim.