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Laughs and Loss

Actress, writer, mother, wife, granddaughter. 

By Beth Kephart

WHY I’M LIKE THIS: True Stories
By Cynthia Kaplan C’85.
New York: William Morrow, 2002.
224 pages, $23.95. Order this book

She will be compared, inevitably, to Anne Lamott and David Sedaris. She will be called a humorist, because she is that funny. But Cynthia Kaplan—actress, writer, mother, wife, granddaughter—is an original, and her first collection of essays and stories is now in print to prove it. 

Comprising 21 short tales, Why I’m Like This begins with a hilarious send-up of Kaplan’s last year at “Queechy Lake Camp” and ends with a tour-de-force about the cruelly unfulfilled life of truffle pigs. In between, we meet Kaplan’s father, the unrepentant “Gadgeteer;” Kaplan’s mother, who hopes against hope that the author will someday learn couture; Kaplan’s husband, who rescues Kaplan from a lifetime of loser boyfriends; Kaplan’s pill-popping, self-absorbed, and disturbingly untidy therapist; Kaplan’s wide-eyed newborn son; and, most touchingly, Kaplan’s grandparents. In tale after tale, Kaplan yields fragments of a life, torn-out episodes, scrupulously polished set pieces that rise above their punch lines to achieve not just humor but poignancy. 

The book is so good because Kaplan is such a likable and trustworthy guide to her own life. Both honest and compassionate, refreshingly intelligent, fastidiously articulate, she writes not at the expense of others, but at the expense of herself. Never the most popular girl in the class, often lonely, frequently waking up with the wrong kind of man, afraid of moths, afraid, indeed, of most things, Kaplan is all-too-aware of her conflicted dark side, her own desperate, fatalistic, worrisome, worrying self:

Probably the only reason I can function at all on a daily basis is because my body has courage. It does things—drives, flies, lives—in spite of me, maybe to torture me. To get back at it I conduct psychological experiments on myself: I have written the obituaries of myself and everyone I love. I have contracted every conceivable fatal illness and been the victim of nearly every form of accident with the exception of an anvil falling on my head, which even for me seems far-fetched. I don’t do it to get attention. I do it to anticipate the grief, to see if I could live with the loss. I’m the worst kind of empathizer; I feel despair over unconfirmed future events.

And yet Kaplan survives and sees far beyond herself, locating the shimmer and the absurdity in whatever she turns her attention to. We eavesdrop on the improbability of the acting life; in addition to being cast in a few commercials and independent films, Kaplan somehow lands a disproportionate number of lesbian roles. We’re with her as she tries to conceive a first, much-wanted child.

But it’s when Kaplan takes us with her into the world of her grandmothers and along for the rough, rewarding ride of pregnancy and mothering that this collection transcends humor and becomes about something else entirely. Yes, Kaplan introduces her New York grandmother, Dorothy, by way of her absolutely horrifying cooking—“the chicken would have been in the oven since noon, defrosting and recooking, acquiring its signature teeth-gnashing consistency.” But what Kaplan is really getting at is how much she loves this woman who slowly cedes her life to Alzheimer’s, how terribly difficult it is to watch this lady decline.

Soon enough Dorothy is losing things and memories, she grows unable to care for herself, and the family undertakes the grueling, heartbreaking process of transferring Kaplan’s grandmother into a nursing home. There is nothing funny about this, and Kaplan doesn’t pretend that there is. She is devastated by the “violence” of the relocation, by the stripping away of a life, by the cruelty of such a disease. She is devastated, and with as much talent and wisdom as she brings to her deadpan observations and preposterous ironies, Kaplan now writes boldly, simply, beautifully of loss:

I am reminded of the plant wrapped in newspaper. Alive, or so it seems, despite the fact that the most elemental things are stripped away. Without the dirt and the water, without the alchemy, though, it cannot live for long. It is dying from the inside out and will eventually collapse. Implode. Is this the way of Alzheimer’s? I don’t know. It is just one way to describe the slow, dismal ruination of everything but the body, the shocking exposure of roots to air.

Why I’m Like This is about life, and life is sometimes funny, and sometimes it is not. With her unique brand of humane observation and wit, with her deadpan voice and her fearless honesty, Kaplan has written a book for the ages, a book that will no doubt be passed on, from hand to hand, in family after family, by people who recognize some heretofore-unearthed part of their own history or selves in the stories that she tells.

Beth Kephart’s third memoir, Still Love in Strange Places, was released in April. An excerpt, “First Visit, Last Farewell,” appeared in the May/June Gazette.

The Quiet Man

Anthony J. Drexel was as powerful as he was publicity-shy.

By Mark F. Bernstein

By Dan Rottenberg C’63.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 
248 pages, $29.95. Order this book

If it is true
 that we live in the “Golden Age of Biography,” a hallmark of that Age is meticulous—one is tempted to say compulsive—research. Robert Caro spent 12 years writing his just-released third volume on Lyndon Johnson, a tome that checks in at nearly 1,200 pages. It took Jean Strouse 15 years to produce her 689-page biography of J. P. Morgan. Dan Rottenberg spent 23 years working on his biography of Anthony J. Drexel, the man who may be said to have discovered Morgan, but his book, The Man Who Made Wall Street, weighs in at just under 250 pages, including notes.

What is an historian to do with a subject who wrote few letters (and destroyed what little correspondence he did have), was a man of few words, and spent his career in a field—banking and finance—that generally does not nurture the introspective spirit? Rottenberg’s book, however, is none the worse for its brevity. To the contrary, he deserves credit for doing no more than his material yields, for telling his story succinctly and cogently and then sitting down. The work took so long in part because there was so little to go on, but Rottenberg appears to have unearthed much that was not known to exist.

From Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836 to the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, the country had no central bank. That role was filled, when it was filled, by private bankers, who were important not so much for their own personal wealth, but for their abilities as middlemen, bringing those who had capital together with those who needed it. Morgan was the best-known and most successful private banker in American history. But in 1871, Rottenberg shows, 34-year-old J. P. Morgan was only the modestly successful and insecure son of London-based financier, Junius Morgan. It was in that year that he caught Anthony Drexel’s eye, and much of what he later learned he learned from the Philadelphian. Drexel’s father, who started the family firm, had helped float government bonds to pay for the Mexican War, as Drexel himself did during the Civil War. Afterwards, he helped reorganize railroads, then the largest and most financially complicated businesses in the country, and was an early investor in the incandescent light bulb.

The Drexel-Morgan match made sense on all sides. Any American banker at the time needed access to European capital. Drexel had a strong Paris office but a weak presence in London. Junius Morgan had a strong London office but needed one in Paris. Both firms operated in New York, but the quiet, reserved Drexel needed a forceful front man to run his operations there. Junius needed someone with Drexel’s stability and experience to keep an eye on his son.

Drexel made the younger Morgan his partner and protege, instilling in him a self-confidence that had previously been lacking and turning Drexel, Morgan & Co. into the most influential private bank in the world. Their New York headquarters across from the Stock Exchange, sat on the most desirable piece of real estate in Manhattan, although Drexel, characteristically, kept his office on Third Street in Philadelphia.

In many ways, the relationship between Drexel and Morgan, as well as John D. Rockefeller, another contemporary titan, seems to exemplify the relationship between parochial Philadelphia and cosmopolitan New York. Morgan, for example, became one of the great art collectors in history. Drexel, by contrast, served on the board of the Fairmount Park Art Commission. Rockefeller endowed the University of Chicago, one of the world’s preeminent research institutions. Drexel endowed the university that bears his name, which was created as a commuter school and which has struggled throughout its life to escape the shadow of its neighbor, Penn. 

Throughout Drexel’s career, there seems to have been a conventionality, a narrowness, that made men like Morgan and Rockefeller giants. It is that lack of eccentricity, as much as the dearth of archival material, that limited what Rottenberg could do with his subject. You may want a sober, sensible banker handling your own money, but the buccaneers make better copy.

Although Drexel was a confirmed stay-at-home, his children (like Morgan’s) were smothered by their privilege and squandered their lives in dissipation. That relationship might have been explored further—though, since hardly any correspondence survives, Rottenberg wisely did not try to analyze where there is no evidence.

One point, however, would have borne deeper investigation. “With the luxury of hindsight,” Rottenberg writes, “economists of the future may well question whether central banks operated by political appointees do a better job of stabilizing markets than the cumulative private decisions of hundreds of financiers whose own fortune are at stake, as Morgan’s and Drexel’s were.” It’s an audacious suggestion, but unfortunately one tossed out in the last few pages of the postscript. One wishes that Rottenberg, who also enjoyed the luxury of hindsight, had explored it himself.

A few quibbles notwithstanding, this judicious, well-written book fills a large hole in our historical knowledge.

Mark F. Bernstein is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia and the author of Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, which was excerpted in the November/December 2001 issue.


A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps 

By Michael Thad Allen G’91 Gr’95.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 
392 pp., $39.95. Order this book

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of prisoners were worked to death by the Nazis under a brutal system of slave labor in the concentration camps. By 1942 this vast network of slavery extended across all of German-occupied Europe, but the whole operation was run by a surprisingly small staff of bureaucrats. This book’s author suggests that the SS, which helped build gas chambers and underground factories, did not force slavery upon the German economy; rather, corporations from Volkswagen to IG Farben actively sought out the SS’s labor reserves. Dr. Michael Thad Allen is assistant professor of modern German history and the history of technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. 

By Jim Gladstone C’88.
Binghamton, N.Y.: Harrington Park Press, 2002. 
239 pp., $17.95 (paper); $27.95 (cloth). Order this book

“Do I have to end my life to end my childhood?” Joshua Royalton, the 22-year-old narrator of this novel, asks himself this question with an open pill bottle in his trembling hand. To come up with his answer, he leads readers on a darkly funny jaunt through the collective adolescence of his whole family. Jim Gladstone is a creative consultant and writer who lives in Philadelphia and Paris. His cultural commentary and criticism have appeared in major daily newspapers; his writing has also graced tampon packages and encouraged the consumption of fresh turkey products.

VINUM: The Story of Roman Wine
By Stuart Fleming, Staff.
Glen Mills, Pa.: Art Flair, 2001. 133 pp., $38.00. Order this book

Follow the way that historical events and social attitudes influenced the nature of Roman viticulture from the mid-second-century B.C. to the early-seventh-century A.D. Wrapped into this story is the place of wine in Roman everyday life: its influence on the rules of marriage, its valuable role in medicinals, its part in religious practices, and the way it so clearly mirrored social divisions between the haves and have-nots. Dr. Stuart Fleming is scientific director for the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. He is the author of five other books, including Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change. [“Reflections on the Roman World,” April 1998.]

By Arthur Dimond C’66.
Roseville, Calif.: Dry Bones Press, 2001.
275 pp., $17.95. Order this book

Jeffrey Stevenson, a soft-spoken, apolitical college student and aspiring musician, becomes a fugitive after being cornered at an anti-Vietnam war rally he never planned to attend and, in his terror, murdering a policeman. After 25 years on the run, he learns that his mother has died and his brother is now dying, and decides it’s time to come home. With the help of his politically well-connected historian father, he cuts a deal with the government and returns to a world still wrestling with passions unleashed by Vietnam and a family wrestling with its own passions. Arthur Dimond is the president and owner of Dimond Communications Group in Newton Center, Mass.

The Top 10 Book of Improbable Victories, 
Unlikely Heroes, and Other Martial Oddities 

By M. Evan Brooks C’70.
Washington: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002. 
386 pp., $12.95. Order this book

Military History’s Most Wanted covers the good, the bad, and the ugly of warfare through the ages. Chronicling 700 of the most outlandish commanders and colorful events in military history, this book’s 70 lists include warfare’s top 10 winners, losers, traitors, entertainers, war novels, and movies. Mark Evan Brooks retired as lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve in 2001, and is currently an attorney for a government agency. 

CREATING AN OLD SOUTH: Middle Florida’s 
Plantation Frontier before the Civil War 

By Edward E. Baptist Gr’97.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of Chapel Hill Press, 2002. 
408 pp., $13.97. Order this book

Set on the antebellum Southern frontier, this book uses the history of Jackson and Leon counties in Florida’s Panhandle to scrutinize the myth of an “Old,” changeless South. Beginning with the new settlements of 1821, the book portrays the battle between whites over the social, political, and economic institutions of their new society, while slaves, torn from their families, were meanwhile forced to carve plantations from the woods of Middle Florida. From there, Baptist follows the mounting tension among white men as it developed in the 1840s into a crisis severe enough to disrupt slavery, eventually ending with an enshrined ideal of white equality—and black inequality. Edward E. Baptist is Charlton W. Tebeau Assistant Professor of History at the University of Miami. 

Introduced by Alberto P�rez-G�mez 
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 
216 pp.; $45.00 (paper); $60.00 (cloth). Order this book

A guidebook to how the Philadelphia practice KieranTimberlake builds its buildings, this monograph opens the firm’s files for 29 projects ranging from houses to schools. The architects’ processes for crafting everything from handrails to pressure-equalized cavity walls are revealed and illustrated with photographs and detailed working drawings. Written for architects, students of architecture, and architectural historians, this manual includes excerpts of discussion of the work by the partners of the firm, Stephen Kieran GAr’76 and James Timberlake GAr’77, as well as other descriptions and essays. Kieran and Timberlake, architects for Levine Hall on Penn’s campus, currently under construction (See p. 35.), began their practice in 1984 and teach a joint studio focusing on transfer technology at the University. 

SHAMELESS: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols 
By Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt G’93 Gr’97.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 
342pp.; $24.95. Order this book

Preaching marital equality, free love, spiritualism, the health risks of corsets and masturbation, and the benefits of the cold-water cure, Mary Gove Nichols (1810-84) was once one of the most infamous and influential women in America. Often considered too radical and mercurial even by her fellow reformers, she became a national figure in the 1840s and 1850s by giving anatomy lectures around the country in which she openly discussed the details and desires of the female body. This book portrays the lives of Nichols and her second husband as they endeavored to challenge the inequities of conventional marriage and to advocate universal good health. Dr. Jean Silver-Isenstadt holds a Ph.D. in the history of science and will soon graduate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

By Vickie L. Bajtelsmit GrW’94.
New York: Amacom, 2001. 
295pp., $17.95. Order this book

Do you know your net worth? Have you forecast your retirement income needs? For many women, the answer to these and many other vital financial questions is No. According to Dr. Vickie L. Bajtelsmit, that’s because many women, despite their competence in managing and balancing the demands of work and family, all too often rely on men to take care of their finances. This book, designed to help women achieve financial independence while still running an office and getting dinner on the table by seven, gives essential insights into budgeting, investing, and using credit wisely. Bajtelsmit is professor of finance at Colorado State University.

By Lisa Scottoline C’77 L’81.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002. 
310 pp., $25.95. Order this book

How many people get to solve their own murder? In this legal thriller, a young lawyer based at the Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates leaves town for a high-profile case, but when she buys her morning newspaper, her own photo is plastered all over the front page—and someone has wrongly reported her murdered. Anne Murphy, the reported victim, uses boldness and ingenuity —plus a pair of red satin hot pants—to track down her killer. Lisa Scottoline is a former trial lawyer and author of eight other legal thrillers, including The Vendetta Defense.

By Andy Robinson C’80.
Tucson, Ariz.: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
200 pp., $25.95. Order this book

Fundraising trainer and consultant Andy Robinson shows nonprofit professionals how to initiate and sustain successful earned-income ventures that provide financial security and advance an organization’s mission. Step-by-step, his book shows how to organize a team, select a venture, draft a business plan, find start-up funding, and successfully market goods and services. Robinson profiles two dozen organizations that use commerce to become more financially secure—and stay true to their fundamental values along the way. Robinson has assisted nonprofits throughout North America, leading workshops on fundraising, grant writing, board development, strategic planning, marketing, and earned-income strategies.

The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany
By Maria Höhn Gr’95.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 
$59.95 (cloth), $22.50 (paper). Order this book

With the outbreak of the Korean War, the poor, rural West German state of Rhineland-Palatinate became home to some of the largest American military installations outside the United States. And though Germany’s Christian Democrats were eager for the political alliance, they scorned the German women who eagerly pursued white and black American GIs. According to Dr. Maria Höhn, German anxieties over widespread Americanization were always debates about proper gender norms and racial boundaries, and while the American military brought democracy with it to Germany, it also brought Jim Crow. Maria Höhn is assistant professor of history at Vassar College.

By Janet Rothenberg Pack, Faculty.
Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2002. 
214 pp., $19.95. Order this book

While much contemporary urban research focuses on differences in population-growth rates between cities and suburbs, Dr. Janet Rothenberg Pack urges consideration of a regional perspective that encompasses broader socioeconomic measures. This book’s analysis of 277 metropolitan regions between 1960 and 1990 reveals a strong connection between regional growth and improved socioeconomic vitality. Pack is professor of business and public policy and real estate at the Wharton School and a nonresident senior fellow in economic studies with the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

By Noel Hynd C’70.
Pinnacle, 2002. 416 pp., $6.99. Order this book

For Bill and Rebecca Moore and their two children, the move to Southern California is a dream come true. Surrounded by gracefully swaying palm trees, their new neighborhood is truly a place apart—an oasis of serenity in modern Los Angeles. Nearby is a star-studded cemetery, a tribute to the myth and glamor of a Hollywood that has never really died. There is even an eerie legend attached to the Moores’ house that they find very quaint and atmospheric. Until their son and daughter disappear without a trace. Noel Hynd, a former sports columnist for the Gazette, is the author of several horror novels, including Ghosts (Pinnacle, 2002).

THE WORD AS SCALPEL: A History of Medical Sociology
By Samuel W. Bloom C’43.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 
348 pp., $24.95 (paper); $60.00 (cloth). Order this book

This book traces the intellectual and institutional evolution of the field of medical sociology in relation to antecedents of the past 2000 years, and developments in American sociology and medicine since the turn of the century. Drawing on his own experience as a participant and witness, Dr. Samuel Bloom, a professor of community medicine at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, provides an account of the ongoing search for knowledge about the relationship between illness, medicine, and society.

IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE: Stories From My Life
By Walter Meyerhof Gr’46.
Santa Barbara, Calif.: Fithian Press, 2002. 
106 pp.; $12.00. Order this book

Dr. Walter Meyerhof, professor emeritus at Stanford University, still has the microscope his parents gave him as a boy. And in this collection of autobiographical essays, he describes it with the same respect and awe he feels for the two-mile-long linear accelerator in the Stanford hills. Born in Germany in 1922, Meyerhof was raised Lutheran despite his Jewish roots; his family, including his father who held a Nobel Prize for Medicine, fled to “friendlier” countries when the Nazis began to bully them. Now retired, Meyerhof co-directs the Varian Fry Foundation Project. 

MYASTHENIA GRAVIS: An Illustrated History 
By John C. Keesey M’61.
Roseville, Calif.: Publishers Design Group, 2002. 
120pp.; $49.95. 

The story of myasthenia gravis (MG) stretches back to the beginnings of neurology, when it perplexed physicians by its fluctuating course and its lack of visible pathology. This book follows the story up through brilliant and sometimes unexpected modern discoveries, showing how the research into MG by people from many fields has shed light on common conditions from lupus to arthritis. Dr. John Keesey is a professor emeritus at UCLA.

By Aaron Karo W’01.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. 
159 pp., $10.00. Order this book

It took college freshman Aaron Karo only one week to realize that college was a joke—an especially funny one that he could share with his friends in a regular e-mail newsletter about life on campus. By his senior year at Penn, Ruminations on College Lifehad become an international phenomenon. This book features highlights from the original “e-zine” as well as previously unpublished material. Karo now lives in New York.

BUSINESS EXPECTATIONS: Are You Using Technology to its Fullest?
By Bryan Bergeron and Jeffrey Blander W’93.
New York: John Wiley, 2002. 
256 pp., $39.95. Order this book

The most successful companies are those most adept at taking a new concept, enabled through the development of new technology, and turning that concept into a real product that consumers want or need. This book proposes that by viewing business practices as an alchemical process that moves a product along a continuum from magic (an idea) toward gold (a tangible product), business leaders can make better decisions and increase their odds of successful market introduction. Jeffrey Blander, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and MIT, works as an independent consultant on information systems, clinical trials, and health-outcomes research.

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