One-Minute Book Reviews

April 23, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #1: The 2007 Biography Winner, Debby Applegate’s ‘The Most Famous Man in America’

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Book Reviews,Christianity,History,Pulitzer Prizes,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners of the Pulitzers and other book awards deserved their honors. This site reviewed the 2007 Caldecott Medalist, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, on Jan. 22 and the 2007 Newbery Medalist, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky on Feb. 19 (reading group guide posted on Feb. 22).

Title: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday hardcover, 527 pp., $27.95, and Three Leaves paperback, 560 pp., $16.95.

What it is: The biography of the most famous preacher of the 19th century, who was also an abolitionist and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Winner of … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography

Was this one of those book awards that make you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the editor or publisher had pornographic home videos of all of them? No

Worthy of a major award? Yes

Comments: This is a terrific biography I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t won a Pulitzer. I intended to read only a few chapters and include the book in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” category on this site. But I became swept up quickly in its story of a witty and lovable but flawed preacher and the remarkable Beecher family. Near the end of his life Henry Ward Beecher became entangled in a sex scandal that led to a lurid trial and adds interest at a point when many biographies lose steam. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this book was an understanding of how the Puritan focus on a wrathful deity gave way to the view of God as a loving presence that exists today. Debby Applegate makes a good case that Beecher was the prime mover in this tectonic shift. She writes in a conversational tone that keeps this book from becoming stuffy but occasionally leads to a phrase that sounds anachronistic in context, such as: “Henry’s first two years as a minister had been a mixed bag.”

Best line: See below.

Worst line: The title of Chapter 12, which comes from a popular rumor: “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight of His Mistresses Every Sunday Evening.” This might be the best line if it matched the text. But on one page Applegate quotes a man as saying that “Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” Two pages later, she quotes another man who says, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.” The chapter title seems to be a corruption of the two quotes. I’m inclined to cut Applegate some slack on this one, because she may have found many versions of this rumor, but not the copy editor whose job it was to catch such discrepancies.

Recommended if … you like Civil War–era history and are looking for book with wider scope than Manhunt, which I also liked. Highly recommended to history book clubs.

Editor: Gerald Howard

Published: June 2006 (Doubleday hardcover), April 2007 (Three Leaves paperback).

Links: You can read the first chapter and watch a C-SPAN interview with Applegate at www.themostfamousmaninamerica.com.

Furthermore: Debby Applegate has taught at Yale and Wesleyan universities. Her book was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 28, 2007

Anne Porter: An Easter Lily in the Field of Late-Blooming Poets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Poetry,Reading,Religion,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm

In her mid-90s an acclaimed poet returns with her first book since her National Book Award finalist, An Altogether Different Language

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. Steerforth/Zoland, 176 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, a fascinating article about Anne Porter appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline, “A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise.” The story noted that Porter was 83 when her first collection, An Altogether Different Language, was published in 1994. The book was a finalist for a National Book Award for poetry and followed by Living Things in 2006.

The Journal article included excerpts from Porter’s poems that were so good that I began looking for Living Things – online, at libraries and bookstores in Manhattan and the suburbs. Nobody had it, or could get it. It seemed that – whether because of the Journal article or Porter’s growing literary reputation – the book had sold out everywhere.

Just before Lent, Living Things turned up again. And the timing couldn’t have been more apt for the return of this fine collection, which has all the poems from An Altogether Different Language and 39 new ones. Living Things makes clear that Porter is an Easter lily in the field of late-blooming poets. She is a Catholic poet in the same way that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist: She describes a world that is, as O’Connor put it, founded on “the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic – the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment.” But she transcends the label “Catholic writer.” As the poet David Shapiro has said, Porter transmits “her Franciscan joy in created things” and “reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.” At the same time, her poems spring from everyday life, particularly her role as the mother of five children by her late husband, the artist Fairfield Porter.

Many of her rhymed and unrhymed poems are meditations on saints, holy days or Bible verses. Others are hymns or prayers, steeped in a sense of wonder and gratitude reminiscent of that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” One of the most memorable poems is “A Short Prayer,” an interpretation – you might even call it a brief modern translation – of the “Hail Mary.” In “An Easter Lily” Porter considers the gift of a lily

Whose whiteness
Is past belief

Its blossoms
The shape of trumpets
Are mute as swans

But deep and strong as sweat
Is their feral perfume.

In seven short iambic lines, Porter links the Easter lily to glory (“trumpets”), martyrdom (“swans”), and purity (the whiteness of the lily and swans). And she does more. The best-known Bible verse about lilies, Matthew 6:28, says they “toil not” – they don’t sweat. Porter’s similie – “strong as sweat” – encourages you to consider the strength of the lily as well as its grace. It also connects flower implicitly to the sweat of Christ carrying the cross. Could anyone look at a lily the same way after reading this poem?

Perhaps the most poignant poem in Living Things is the loving reminiscence, “For My Son Johnny.” Porter told the Wall Street Journal that she believes her late son suffered from either schizophrenia or autism. In the poem she recalls, among other things, his kindness:

Though your shoelaces were hardly ever tied
And you seldom wore matching socks
You tried to behave with dignity in the village
“So as not to embarrass my little sisters.”

Porter’s natural tone and diction, here and elsewhere, are part of the charm of her book. The work of religious poets can imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the language of Scripture or the great metaphysicists. Porter has a voice all her own. How lovely that, however belatedly, people are discovering it.

Best line: At this time of year, many people may especially appreciate the poems that relate to Easter, which include “In Holy Week,” “Cradle Song II” and “Four Seasons Carol.” Anyone who looks for strong rhymes may also enjoy “House Lots,” a meditation on the arrival of bulldozers: “Good-bye sweet whistling quail/ Milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace/ Good-bye shy cottomtail/ Quit your secret room …”

Worst line: None.

Published: January 2006

Furthermore: The back cover of this book has an evocative portrait of the author by her husband. Search Google for “Video: Portrait of Anne Porter” to watch a short video of Porter reading from and talking about her poetry. The Wall Street Journal article by Lucette Lagnado ran on Nov. 11–12, 2006.

Consider reading also: Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, 2006), by Robert Cording, Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at Holy Cross. The poems in this book reflect a religious perspective and include the four-page “Lenten Stanzas” and the briefer “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist has been the book editor of the Plain Dearler and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven’t read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz’s work? Jan]

Links: www.candlewick.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 28, 2006

Jason Johnson’s Celebration of Black Worship Styles

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Coffee Table Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:57 am

A contemporary photographic portrait of famous and little-known black churches from New York City to Los Angeles

Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. By Jason Miccolo Johnson. Foreword by Gordon Parks. Introduction by Dr. Cain Hope Felder. Essays by Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, Rev. Cardes H. Brown, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones. Afterword by Bishop John Hurst Adams. Epilogue by Rev. Dr. J. Beecher Hicks, Jr. Bulfinch, 159 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

On New Year’s Eve, many black churches will hold Watch Night services, a tradition that began in African-American worship on Dec. 31, 1862, the day before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date, slaves gathered in their congretations to await confirmation that they would soon be free.

Photographer James Miccolo Johnson celebrates the Watch Night tradition and others in Soul Sanctuary, a striking portrait in words and black-and-white pictures of worship in black Protestant and Catholic Churches from New York City to Los Angeles. Photography books often have a bare-bones text that does little to enrich an understanding of their images. Soul Sanctuary is exceptional for its thoughtful essays by three Biblical scholars, two ministers, a journalist, and the late photographer Gordon Parks. These essays explain standard practices such as the call and response between the pulpit and the pew (during which minister’s “Ain’t He all right?” may bring the response, “Yeah!”).

Soul Sanctuary also shows, in words and pictures, how black churches are changing. Newer forms of worship include “praise step teams” that are especially popular among students and “reminiscent of high school drill teams.” Churches may have gyms, classrooms, day-care centers, computer labs, recording studios, and conference centers. Some of the largest have parking lots so far away from the sanctuary, they use golf carts to ferry members to services.

All of this makes Soul Sanctuary an excellent introduction to African-American worship, and a book that keeps its focus on spirituality, not history or architecture or personalities. Those New Year’s Eve services evoke more than the joy of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Watch Night is also a time to give thanks to God for making it through another year and to pray for a better year to come.”

Best line: Each major section of the book begins with one or more Bible verses, and the one that best fits its spirit is: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118: 24 (King James Version)

Worst line: “Baptized believers have the right to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion … usually small wafers or crushed crackers (the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body) and grape juice (the wine, symbolizing his blood) from gleaming gold or silver trays.” This describes only the Protestant tradition, though the book also includes Catholic churches. Catholics believe that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ, known as the doctrine of transubstantion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transubstantiation

Recommended … without reservations, particularly as a gift for a minister or lay leader of a black, white, or racially mixed congregation.

Editor: Michael L. Sand

Published: April 2006 www.soulsanctuarybook.com

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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