One-Minute Book Reviews

January 29, 2008

More Questions About Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’

[Update at 5:20 p.m. Ishmael Beah stands by his story in an Associated Press article posted today www.books.beloblog.com/archives/2008/01/ishmael_beah_stands_by_hi, though I can't get this link to the story to work.]

More questions have arisen about Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone in a continuing investigation of the book by the Australian, the Australian national newspaper. The paper says it “failed to find any supporting evidence for one of the book’s dramatic peaks: the death of six boy soldiers in a fight at a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in early 1996.” Beah and his publisher have defended the accuracy of A Long Way Gone. But they have refused to answer questions about discrepancies between what the reporters found and what appears in the book, the newspaper says. Here’s the latest report on the controversy, in which I am quoted:

www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23130172-5016101,00.html

A review of A Long Way Gone appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 27, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/, And a reading group guide to the book was posted on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in a review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

What Is Style in Writing? Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein)

Perhaps no aspect of writing is as misunderstood as style. Many people confuse it with decoration or following rules laid down by experts such as E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style. What is style if it is neither of those? Joseph Epstein writes in Literary Genius, which includes an essay on the Edward Gibbon by David Womersley:

“Style, it needs to be understood, is never ornamentation or a matter of choice of vocabulary or amusing linguistic tics or mannerisms. Style, in serious writing, is a way of seeing, and literary geniuses, who see things in a vastly different way than the rest of us, usually require a vastly different style. As Edward Gibbon wrote on style (quoted by David Womersley in his essay): ‘The style of an author should be the image of his mind.’”

Joseph Epstein in the introduction to the new Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser (Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $18.95, paperback), www.pauldry.com. Epstein edited the American Scholar, has written 19 books and contributes to The New Yorker and other magazines. Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His 17-Year-Old Son’s Courageous Effort to Survive a Fatal Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Proud’

A sensitive teenager faced a devastating illness with grace and intelligence

Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir. By John Gunther. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 224 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You could argue that John Gunther idealizes his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17, in this classic memoir. But parents naturally want to remember the best in children they have lost. So the question isn’t whether Gunther idealizes his son but whether Johnny deserves the near-heroic portrayal he receives in this book. The answer is yes.

First published in 1949, Death Be Not Proud is a slim book that has little in common the sort of memoirs that recently have become fashionable: fat, self-dramatizing stories overstuffed with emotion and incident. Gunther describes with uncommon restraint how he and his ex-wife tried to save their son after he developed a glioma multiforme, a brain tumor that few people then survived.

During his 15-month illness, Johnny endured a series of brutal, long-shot treatments: brain surgery, mustard gas injections, a primitive form of radiation. He showed his character and vivid intellectual curiosity best after the surgery, when father asked if he knew he’d had an operation. “Of course,” Johnny said. “I heard them drilling three holes through my skull, also the sound of my brains sloshing around. From the sound, one of the drills must have had a three-eights of an inch bit.”

A bestseller in its day, Death Be Not Proud appears today on high school reading lists, and many people see it as a book for teenagers. This is a shame. A sea-change has occurred in the advice that parents of sick children get from doctors (who urged Gunther to lie to Johnny to keep him from finding out how serious his illness was). A book club might spend hours talking about just one of the questions raised by this book: Would Johnny really have been better off if his parents had taken the advice of 21st-century doctors instead of their own?

Best line: Many passages attest to Johnny’s unusual intellectual and emotional maturity. His parents once asked him, while he was in prep school, if he wanted to see some home movies taken of him when he was a child. “Only if they’re not too recent – the past is tolerable if remote enough,” Johnny replied.

Worst line: Death Be Not Proud has a scattering of lines such as, “Johnny was as sinless as a sunset” and “Everybody loved him – down to the corner cop.” If these seem too rosy, the book wears them lightly. Gunther is not trying to convince you that Johnny was perfect but to portray his struggle against cancer.

Reading group guide: I can’t link directly to the publisher’s guide, posted at www.harpercollins.com, but here’s a link to it that you can paste into your browser: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061230974/Death_Be_Not_Proud/.

Published: 1949 (first edition) and 2007 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition).

Furthermore: John Gunther (1901–1970), one of the best-known reporters of his day, wrote the popular “Inside” series that included Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside U.S.A.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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