One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2014

‘Women Behaving Badly’ — True Stories of Notorious Female Killers

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction,True Crime,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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One of America’s best historical true-crime writers recalls women who made a fatal mistake by the lake

Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers: An Anthology. By John Stark Bellamy II. Gray & Co., 255 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What a pity that the FBI didn’t launch its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until 1950. An earlier start might have allowed the spy agency to tap a few of the female killers in this sparkling collection of true-crime tales, most of which deal with murders committed in the Cleveland area in the late 19th or early 20th century.

It may or may not be true, as John Stark Bellamy asserts in the preface to Women Behaving Badly, that “there is simply no comparison in cunning, quality, and sheer entertainment value between the shallow, predictable murders of men and the complex, richly nuanced slayings by women.” But this book makes clear that Hollywood does an injustice to female killers when it stereotypes them as gun molls, action heroines or sex-obsessed stalkers.

The 16 tales in the collection deal chiefly with Bonnies without Clydes, women who took the initiative in crime instead of serving as men’s foils, and some testify to a different form of female solidarity than has inspired anthologies like Sisterhood is Powerful. One of the most chilling accounts recalls the fatal 1919 stabbing of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber by assassins his wife had hired, a crime that remains “the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.” Another tale focuses on Velma West, who along with three other inmates escaped in 1939 from a women’s prison, where she was serving time for smashing her husband’s skull with a clawhammer. (Captured in Dallas, West went back to the Marysville Reformatory and implied that her murdered spouse had been too weak to live with her: “He couldn’t take it. I hit him playfully on the head with a hammer one night and that was that.”) A third tale reconsiders the case of the sadistic 1950s housewife Mary Barger, who had help from a 16-year-old niece when she tortured her brother-in-law’s two daughters, who were living with with her while their father served in the Air Force.

Bellamy tells his stories with an infectious zeal for his subjects’ audacity and an admiration for the prosecutors who matched wits with them, traits that in this and earlier books have established him as one of America’s best writers of historical true crime. He avoids the clichés and portentous tones of television shows like 48 Hours — which regularly describe victims “beautiful” people who “always had a smile” — and leaves the impression that he would shudder at the word “closure.” Just when you’re convinced that only the dimmest shield-wearer would have seen the 1905 death of Minnie Peters as a “suicide,” he writes: “But before you dismiss Cleveland police chief Fred Kohler as an utter moron, consider this: He may have been right about Minnie killing herself.” Without special pleading, Bellamy also shows a keen sympathy for the horrific circumstances that could drive women to crime. He notes rightly that some of his subjects might have had “a happier fate if they had lived in a more enlightened age.” Although he doesn’t doesn’t say so directly, at least a few of the women in his book might have avoided tragedy had they lived in times of safety nets like unemployment insurance, rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for abused women.

Perhaps the most poignant story in Women Behaving Badly involves Anna Kempf, a Hungarian immigrant who faced eviction from her home after being abandoned in 1928 by a husband who left her with three young daughters to support. Kempf had spent months visiting private and public welfare organizations, pleading vainly for financial help, and had tried unsuccessfully to place her children in an orphanage to keep them off the streets. The news that she was about to lose her job seems to have been the last straw: Kempf tried to kill herself and her children by dishing up bowls of chocolate ice cream laced with rat poison. Her youngest daughter died, and Kempf was indicted for first-degree murder. But her heartbreaking plight so struck the public that one prospective juror, upon receiving his jury-duty fee from the court clerk, said loudly: “Have this cashed for me and give the money to Mrs. Kempf to buy Christmas presents for the other two girls.” A judged sentenced her to probation and “took the opportunity to criticize the social service organizations that had so signally failed to help Anna Kempf in her hour of desperate need.” Stories like Kempf’s may have a Cleveland setting but speak to universal themes that give this book relevance beyond the Midwest.

Among the women in the book who became fugitives, only Mabel Champion had the last laugh on the law. Champion kept a four-inch stiletto in her purse and was wearing eight large diamond rings when, at a crowded restaurant in Cleveland’s theater district on a summer night in 1922, she pulled out a .38-caliber Colt revolver and shot a carnival promoter who had questioned her virtue. (“I did what any woman would do,” she explained to reporters. “I shot Edward O’Connell because he insulted me.”) She received a 20-year sentence, but after serving less than two years, she tucked a crude dummy into her prison bed and walked out of the Marysville Reformatory forever. A nationwide dragnet failed to find her. And although it’s unlikely, given her age — which would today be more than 100 – Bellamy “likes to think she’s still out there, laughing her low Texas belly laugh at the baffled lawmen who couldn’t keep this sensational Jazz-Age baby tied down.” Perhaps she even felt insulted that — when the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has included only eight women — the FBI never chose, however belatedly, include her.

Best line: Why do women use poison as a murder weapon? “Poisoning is generally furtive, an ideal quality for someone confronting an adversary of superior muscular strength of social power,” Bellamy writes. “No messy hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of firearms, or knife-fighting technique is required. Poison is easily acquired, hidden, and disguised: many lethal poisons have nonhomicidal uses and are part of the fabric of everyday life, as any amateur gardener or pest control professional can attest. It can be stealthily administered and is difficult to detect — as many a delayed exhumation has shown.”

Worst line: Fred Gienke suffered “days of excruciating agony” after his niece, Martha Wise, put arsenic in his water. When is agony not “excruciating”?

Published: 2005. All but two of the true-crime stories in Women Behaving Badly first appeared in one of Bellamy’s earlier collections, which include the delightful They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. The book has 32 black-and-white photographs.

Conflict alert: Bellamy wrote so many excellent reviews for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor that I have a permanent bias in favor of his writing.

Jan is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her novels include The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s). She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

August 29, 2013

Evan Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’: Custer at Little Bighorn

Filed under: American History,Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

Did an undiagnosed case of OCD contribute to a military disaster?

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. By Evan S. Connell. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $13.29, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Americans didn’t always find it easy to cast George Armstrong Custer as an imperialist lackey who attacked Indians justly angered by broken treaties. Evan Connell notes in this rambling history of the Battle of Little Bighorn that much of the public viewed him as a homegrown Siegfried, “a warrior of matchless strength and purity,” for decades after a band of Sioux and Cheyenne and others killed all of his men in perhaps as little as 20 or 30 minutes on June 25, 1876.

Son of the Morning Star lends plausibility to both views of one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Connell’s overconfident Custer led a reckless Seventh Cavalry charge against a vastly larger number of warriors who saw gold miners streaming onto land promised to them by the U.S. government. But his book describes enough of the Indian atrocities that preceded the attack, including the murder and scalping of children, to show why any 19th-century American might have seen the young lieutenant colonel as a noble martyr.

Connell tells Custer’s story with a slack hand absent from Mrs. Bridge, the taut masterpiece that made his reputation. A poem that Walt Whitman wrote right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he says, is “not very good”: “If he had waited, as poets are supposed to do, recollecting in tranquility, he might have done better. Then again, it could have been worse.” Son of the Morning Star has a fair amount of such blather. But Connell has a novelist’s eye for suggestive detail that adds layers of interest to the accounts of the battle typically found in history books. He writes that the impulsive Custer had obsessions that included “washing his hands again and again” while serving in the Army during the Civil War. And although his book doesn’t raise it directly, the question lingers: Did America’s Charge of the Light Brigade result in part from what would today be called an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Best line: No. 1: “Just as each tribe marked its arrows in a distinctive way, so each had a particular style of scalping: diamond-shaped, triangular, square, oval. Sgt. [John] Ryan observed in his memoirs that when the scalped body of a trooper was found the Indian scouts knew immediately which tribe was responsible.” No. 2: “Abdominal wounds usually were fatal, whether or not the blade [of an arrow] could be withdrawn. This fact being known to Indians, they frequently aimed at a soldier’s bellybutton, and it is said that experienced frontiersmen sometimes would wrap a blanket around their middle in hopes of stopping the point or at least diminishing the impact.”

Worst line: No. 1: “In addition to written orders, he seems to have been told verbally to dump the stove.” No. 2: The lines about Whitman quoted in the review above.

Published: 1997

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2012

Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ – A World War II POW’s Tale

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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An American bombardier spent 47 days on a raft and became a prisoner of war 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 473 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

As a child, Louis Zamperini stole from neighbors and hid his plunder so the police wouldn’t catch him with it. Unbroken leaves the impression that, in his 90s, he is still keeping evidence under wraps.

Zamperini cooperated with Laura Hillenbrand on this swashbuckling account of his life as an Olympic runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days on a raft and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the book requires you to take more on trust than did its author’s Seabiscuit. Can a man whose parents tried to raise him as a Catholic really not have known the Hail Mary and, while sharks circled his raft, had to recite “snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies”? Can his horrific postwar nightmares have evaporated after he found God at a Billy Graham revival meeting?

Even with 50 pages of end notes, the book doesn’t put those questions to rest. While best biographies demythologize their subjects, this one invests its hero with the qualities less of a mortal than of Bunyan-esque folk hero.

Best line: No. 1: “In Torrance, a one-boy insurgency was born.” No. 2: “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent on those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Worst line: “Louie was hauled into the principal’s office for the umpteenth time.” “For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft.” Hillenbrand tends to overwrite: In both cases, she needed only to say “again.”

If you like Unbroken, you might also like: Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Published: November 2010

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 2, 2012

‘Against Wind and Tide’ – The Double Life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier books

Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947–1986. By Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Edited and with an introduction by Reeve Lindbergh. Pantheon, 358 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Seven years ago a German division of Random House dimmed the halo of an American hero when it published The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh. Author Rudolf Schroeck reported that the aviator had fathered seven children by three European women while married to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Genetic testing confirmed some of his claims, and Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest child of Charles and Anne, later wrote of meeting her half-siblings in her memoir Forward From Here.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh also led double life, bisected by emotion rather than biology, in which a public serenity often hid a deep private anxiety. Nothing shows the gap between her inner and outer lives better than the sixth and final volume of her letters and journals, which contains material Lindbergh wrote between the ages of 41 and 79. She says in a diary entry made in 1955, nearly a quarter-century after the kidnapping and death of her infant son:

“I have become a kind of symbol – a Mother figure to the American public – because I married their Hero – is it? – or because I lost a child?”

Lindbergh added that she felt “gummed into a frame – Whistler’s Mother, complete with rocking chair and folded hands.” The near-perfection that Americans projected onto her belied a pain caused in part by her husband’s selfishness and long, frequent, and unexplained absences in the last decades of their life together.

In Against Wind and Tide Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier letters and diaries. He refuses to return from a trip when she has difficult knee surgery. He at first balks at attending his older daughter’s wedding because, his wife writes to the hurt bride-to-be, “your father never goes to ceremonies of any kind” (which can hardly have comforted her after he attended a White House dinner the previous year). And he leaves his wife alone for days in a primitive and isolated house they had built on Maui, an A-frame dwelling shared with rats. “They seem to eat everything – soap, curtains, plastic covers to the cookie jars, shoes, etc. – everything but poison,” she writes. “At night I am scared and read late and take a pill – but in the daytime I don’t mind much.” At least once Charles Lindbergh’s behavior prompted his wife to consider leaving her marriage.

Did Lindbergh know that her husband had affairs during his absences? If Reeve Lindbergh has the answer, she doesn’t say so in her introduction to Against Wind and Tide. Nor does she directly confirm that, as A. Scott Berg reported in Lindbergh, her mother had an extramarital affair with her doctor, Dana Atchley, to whom she wrote many letters included in Against Wind and Tide. With Clinton-esque sophistry, Reeve Lindbergh says that while she believes her mother had “love affairs,” they may have been “affairs more of words than caresses.”

That coyness doesn’t diminish the appeal of Against Wind and Tide. Lindbergh’s letters and diaries form a portrait of wise and loving woman’s lifelong efforts to reconcile her loyalty to her family with her need for independence and rewarding work, a theme she also developed in Gift From the Sea. Lindbergh had an exceptional gift for observing and reflecting on her experiences, whether she was attending a state dinner or walking “in the mild damp golden afternoon” near her home in Darien, Conn. She makes you see a famous image of Jacqueline Kennedy afresh when she writes of White House dinner: “Mrs. Kennedy swept in like a queen, looking extremely beautiful in a long pink stiff gown, hair high and stiff – rather Japanese – with a diamond star” set into it.  And her hard-won perspectives on widowhood and growing old offer an implicit and refreshing challenge to pop-psychological banalities about what Americans euphemistically call “aging.” Lindbergh writes that spending part of the year in a different climate in later life, as many retirement experts recommend, “makes the other months seem rather more unbearable than they were before.” Clinging to an old neighborhood may not help, either: “One really needs a very different rhythm at our age, and it is difficult to reestablish it in the old place.”

Lindbergh died in 2001 at the age of 94 and, besides the posthumously published Against Wind and Tide, wrote 13 books while married to a man who might ask her to fly  on a moment’s notice to the Philippines to meet Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. And many of the most perceptive comments in the new volume deal with her struggle to maintain a literary career in such unpredictable circumstances. She writes to a friend whose work on a book appears to have stalled: “Remember that big creative act of taking hold of your life freshly and adventurously, as you have just done, takes up much of the creative energy you have. It cannot help but use it up.” No small part of the appeal of this book is that for all her sorrows, Lindbergh kept trying to confront life “freshly and adventurously.”

Best line: No. 1: “I cannot see what I have gone through until I write it down. I am blind without a pencil.” No. 2: “I am convinced that you must write as if no one were ever going to see it. Write it all, as personally and specifically as you can, as deeply and honestly as you can. … In fact, I think it is the only true way to reach the universal, through the knot-hole of the personal. So do, do go ahead and write it as it boils up: the hot lava from the unconscious. Don’t stop to observe, criticize, or be ‘ironic.’ Just write it, like a letter, without rereading. Later, one can decide what to do.”

Worst line: From Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction: “I was certainly amazed to learn, a few years after my mother’s death, that my father had several relationships with other women during his travels in the 1950s and 1960s, and that there were children from these relationships. However, it did not surprise me at all to learn from these children, when I met them, that the paternal pattern was the same for them …” “There were children”? How many? Lindbergh may have dealt with this in her Forward From Here, but she’s leaving readers of Against Wind and Tide in the dark.

Published: April 2012

Read Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction to Against Wind and Tide.

Furthermore: The Associated Press ran a story on The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh in 2005. The New York Times ran a long obituary for Anne Morrow Lindbergh that includes excerpts from her Gift From the Sea and North to the Orient.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 28, 2011

Sexualizing Marie Curie – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’ Nudes

Filed under: Biography,National Book Awards,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 am
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Has one double standard replaced another in a 2011 National Book Award finalist?

By Janice Harayda

For generations Marie Curie was the scientist who had no first name. The world knew her as “Madame Curie” and her male counterparts – men like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr – by their full names.

That double standard has eased. But a potential new one emerges in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love & Fallout, an illustrated biography of the couple who won a Nobel prize for physics for their work with radioactivity. A half dozen of its images sexualize Marie Curie by showing her fully or partly nude — in one case, frolicking as naked as a wood nymph with the married man who became her lover after her husband’s death.

Is anything wrong with this? In several respects, no. No one could object to nude pictures as tasteful as Redniss’s in a book intended for adults. And highlighting the romantic aspects of a life falls within the bounds of legitimate artistic interpretation. Pierre and his successor in his widow’s affections appear naked along with her in some of the pictures.

But Radioactive is at heart a book about Marie Curie: That’s why she appears on the cover. And it’s hard to imagine an illustrated biography of a male scientist of her stature that dealt with its subject’s sex life in the same way. As Redniss notes, Einstein had an illegitimate daughter with a former student and, while married, had an affair with his cousin. When have you seen a book that showed him cavorting as naked as Bacchus with a lover?

You can look at all of this in either of two ways. You can say: Radioactive acknowledges fairly that female Nobel laureates have lives beyond their work whether or not books treat their male counterparts differently. Or you can say: Radioactive is a throwback to an era that tended to view even the most brilliant women in the context of their sexuality and their relations with men. Redniss works hard to show the importance of the Curies’ scientific achievements. But she tips her hand with her subtitle and its double meaning, A Tale of Love & Fallout. You can only imagine the reaction the book might have inspired in Marie Curie, who said, “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”

A review of Radioactive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2011. The book was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. You can see one of its nude images on the site for the New York Public Library: Click on the head of Paul Langevin (the man with the moustache), then then on the red arrow on the cover of the book. On the third click after the arrow you’ll see a spread that represents Marie and Pierre Curie on their honeymoon.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 9, 2010

In ‘Open’ Andre Agassi Returns the Serve of Jerry Kramer and Jim Bouton

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:58 pm
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A superstar recalls his lifelong fight to keep fear from becoming his “gateway drug”

Open: An Autobiography. By Andre Agassi. Knopf, 388 pp., $28.95.

By Janice Harayda
If Open had appeared a generation ago, people might be speak of it today along with Jerry Kramer’s Instant Reply and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, two modern classics of sports literature. As it is, this autobiography can hold its own against many books by authors who have devoted their lives to writing and not, as Andre Agassi did, to becoming one of the great tennis players of the late 20th century.

Much for the publicity for Open has focused on its revelations that Agassi used crystal methamphetamine and chafed against his first marriage to a strong-willed Brooke Shields (who, he says, insisted that he wear shoes with lifts in them at their wedding so she wouldn’t tower over him in the photos). But this book is more interesting for its account of how a superstar wrested a worthy life from dismal circumstances that included growing up with a tyrannical stage father, dropping out of school in the ninth grade, and going back to the minor leagues of his sport when his ranking sank from No. 1 to No. 141 in the world.

Agassi tells his story with a deadpan wit, a lack of grandstanding, and considerable literary flair. Much of the credit for it goes to ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting at the Los Angeles Times. Agassi says he told his friend Barbra Streisand: “Fears are like gateway drugs … You give into a small one, and soon you’re giving into bigger ones.” He has clearly benefited from few of his actions in retirement more than overcoming any fears he had about hiring a ghostwriter who could return his serve with style.

Best line: “I just don’t trust surgeons. I trust very few people, and I especially dislike the notion of trusting one perfect stranger, surrendering all control to one person whom I’ve only just met. I cringe at the thought of lying on a table, unconscious, while someone slices open the wrist with which I make my living. What if he’s distracted that day? What if he’s off? I see it happening on the court all the time – half the time it’s happening to me. I’m in the top ten, but some days you’d think I was a rank amateur. What if my surgeon is the Andre Agassi of medicine? What if he doesn’t have his A game that day? What if he’s drunk or on drugs?”

Worst line: “They’re the cast [of Friends], the eponymous Friends, but for all I know they could be six unemployed actors from West Covina.” Who but a literary critic would say “the eponymous Friends”?

Published: November 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes the publishing industry on her Fake Book News (@FakeBookNews) page on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2010

Candy Spelling Sets the Record Straight in ‘Stories From Candyland’ – She Doesn’t Have a Gift-Wrapping Room: She Has Three of Them

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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Inside the mansion of a Hollywood widow and pack rat

Stories From Candyland. By Candy Spelling. St. Martin’s, 247 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Things might have been a lot different if my parents had encouraged me to write rather than fold napkins,” Candy Spelling says in this memoir of her 38-year marriage to Aaron Spelling, producer of Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210. You can say that again. If her parents had valued writing, we might not have had a book padded with prosaic recipes, friends’ mawkish praise  for  Spelling’s “beauty and kindness,” and an alphabetized, three-page list of 69 things she collects, including “Dresden butter pats, Erotic figurines, Etiquette books, Fine arts books on master jewelry designers, First-edition books (including Mark Twain), Flower picture books, Gold presentation boxes” and Herend hand-painted characters and figurines.”

'Celebrities get way too much attention and credit,' Hollywood widow Candy Spelling says.

Stories From Candyland leaks such Styrofoam peanuts until it brings to mind the critic A.O. Scott’s description of Leap Year as “a movie only in a strictly technical sense.” Spelling casts herself as a victim of misrepresentations spread by her actress daughter, Tori, and professes not to understand them: “I’m not sure what Tori means when she says our relationship is complicated. I wish she would call me …” But the telephone works both ways. And Spelling doesn’t make up for all her omissions and special pleading with glimpses of her famous Los Angeles mansion. Perhaps the biggest revelation in this book is that contrary to reports that the Manor has a dedicated gift-wrapping room, it actually has three of them.

Best line: “I live in a place where the tabloid newspapers and TV shows run ads aimed a medical office receptionists, waiters, grocery baggers, and parking valets, offering them money for ‘confidential celebrity information’ they might have overheard.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And then, suddenly, there he was. Rock Hudson! He was tall, dark, and handsome, just like the magazines said he was.” No. 2: “Celebrities get way too much attention and credit, but they certainly sell movies, music, products, and entertainment.” No. 3: “There’s a big celebrity culture that you’d have to be here in L.A. to truly understand.” No. 4: “Being a celebrity, knowing celebrities, working with celebrities, writing about celebrities, feeding celebrities, repairing celebrity cars, and photographing celebrities – these are just some of the elements of our local economy. There is no end to the public’s fascinating with all things (and people) celebrity.”

Published: March 2009 (hardcover). Paperback due out in March 2010.

Furthermore: News reports that have appeared since the publication of this book suggest that Candy and Tori spelling have mended their fences.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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