What’s so great about The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel centers on a pathological liar who invents an opulent life for himself in the hope of winning an unworthy woman. Yet for all its bleakness, the book has never lost its hold on Americans, who will see it in a new incarnation when the Baz Luhrmann movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio opens next week. Kevin Smokler and I will talk about The Great Gatsby with the novelist and professor Alexander Chee at #classicschat on Twitter on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET. Chee is the author, most recently, of The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Please join us on Twitter for a lively conversation about the book that the English literary critic John Carey has called “perhaps the supreme American novel.”
May 1, 2013
March 16, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
February 17, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Sylvia Plath’s mordantly funny novel The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of the unraveling of her sanity after she won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor competition. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on Feb. 22 at #classicschat for a lively conversation about this wonderful book for book clubs. Kevin wrote the new PracticalClassics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book.
January 22, 2013
Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.
“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”
January 20, 2013
Follow #classicschat on Twitter to learn about Moby-Dick and other classics
Want to learn more about classics you have — or haven’t — read? I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat about Moby-Dick on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. ET/9 p.m. GMT with Kevin Smokler, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. We’ll be joined by Christopher Routledge, who is working with the editor of Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation to produce a handsome, annotated limited edition of Herman Melville’s novel as part of a marathon reading event at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, in May 2013. The Moby-Dick chat this week is the first in a series of monthly Twitter conversations about fiction and nonfiction classics at #classicschat.
January 1, 2013
How a destitute prisoner’s handwritten letter to the Supreme Court made history
Gideon’s Trumpet. By Anthony Lewis. Vintage, 288 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
None of the rights of a defendant is more pervasive than the right to have a lawyer, a judge once said, “for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.” The accused won this vital safeguard in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case that had one of the unlikeliest beginnings in American legal history.
Fifty years ago a poor, indignant prisoner in Florida wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court – in pencil, on lined prison paper – saying that he had been denied the right to a lawyer when convicted. The court agreed to hear his case and held that the Constitution required the government to provide counsel in all serious criminal cases for defendants too poor to afford one. Clarence Earl Gideon won the right to a new trial, this time with a lawyer, and a jury acquitted him in just over an hour.
Anthony Lewis’ story of Gideon v. Wainwright glows with humanity, intelligence and the elegance of the judicial system at its best. Clarence Gideon, “tossed aside by life,” burned with a sense of injustice. Abe Fortas brought to his court-appointed role as the prisoner’s champion a heady mix of intellectual sophistication, a passion for his cause and the resources of a top-tier Washington law firm. Assistant Attorney General Bruce Jacob of Florida was so overmatched with Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, that in Lewis’ hands he earns sympathy even as he argues that giving the accused the right to counsel would cost too much and “be requiring the states to adopt socialism.” The Supreme Court acquires a personality of its own – dignified yet less stuffy than is often imagined — as Lewis explains the factors that affected the outcome of Gideon, including legal precedent, oral argument and friend-of-the-court briefs.
The Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Gideon’s favor on March 18, 1963, and in 2003 Lewis rightly noted in an essay marking its 40th anniversary that, in important ways, the U.S. has failed to honor the justices’ intent. “Many states and localities offer not even the minimal level of support needed for an adequate defense,” he said. “And far too often the lawyers provided for indigent defendants have not met the barest standards of competence.” Those failures do not diminish the achievement of this great book, a beautifully written portrait of a moment when the U.S. government honored one of the noblest of American ideals: that all people deserve equal protection under the law. It is a heartening reminder that, sometimes, the system works.
Best line: “Justice [Robert H. Jackson], who was one of the great oral advocates of his day before he went on the bench, said in his wonderfully astringent style that he felt ‘there should be some comfort derived in any question from the bench. It is clear proof that any inquiring justice is not asleep.’”
Worst line: It seems churlish to pick one in such a fine book, but Lewis writes that a case in Washington State “broke important new ground in federal-state relations” when the “new” isn’t necessary.
Recommendation? Highly recommended to all. An outstanding choice for history book clubs and other reading groups that like high-quality nonfiction with a strong narrative drive.
Published: 1964 (Random House), 1989 (Vintage paperback). Much of the book first appeared first appeared in somewhat different form in The New Yorker.
Furthermore: Gideon’s Trumpet won the 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best fact crime book. Anthony Lewis laments the government’s failure to fulfill the promise of Gideon V. Wainwright in a New York Times essay, “The Silencing of Gideon’s Trumpet.” (Adam Liptak gives more recent examples of that failure in “Lawyers Stumble, and Clients Take Fall,” a New York Times article that deals in part with a death-row inmate whose lawyer “was on probation for public intoxication” and “battling a crippling drug addiction” to crystal methamphetamine while representing his client.) Henry Fonda played Clarence Earl Gideon in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie of the novel. You can read more about Gideon v. Wainwright at Oyez.org.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 20, 2012
A firsthand account of a courageous woman’s life at Auschwitz and in Communist Czechoslovakia
Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 By Heda Margolius Kovály. Translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Holmes & Meier, 192 pp., $15, paperback. First published as The Victors and the Vanquished (Horizon Press, 1973), translated by Ezrahim Kohák.
By Janice Harayda
Two of the least apt euphemisms in English are “concentration camp” and “Stalinist purge.” Nothing was “concentrated” in Hitler’s crematoria except for misery and death. And nothing was “purged” by Stalinist demagogues except human liberty and life.
Heda Kovály shows how much the euphemisms mask in Under a Cruel Star, a classic memoir of 20th-century totalitarianism. Perhaps her greatest achievement is describing her ghastly experiences during and after World War II with a self-respect that her Nazi and Stalinist oppressors tried again and again to crush.
Kovály was born to well-off Czech parents and lived a comfortable life in Prague until the Nazis herded her and her family along with thousands of other Jews into the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, a slum without sewage, “walled off with a board fence and barbed wire.” It was the first of a series of internments, each more barbarous than the last. At Auschwitz, she and other prisoners had to watch as guards broke the arms and legs of a girl who had tried to escape, then dragged her off to a gas chamber. Kovály nonetheless made a bold and successful attempt to escape during a forced march to Bergen-Belsen, only to find during a desperate house-to-house search for shelter in Prague that most of her old friends turned her away for fear of SS reprisals.
After the war, Kovályand her husband, Rudolf Margolius, had a son, and Rudolf accepted under official pressure a high post in the ministry of foreign trade in newly Communist Czechoslovakia. The party falsely accused him of treason, executed him and his co-defendants after a show trial, and ostracized his widow and young child. Kovály finally fled Czechoslovakia as Soviet tanks arrived to crush the pro-democracy movement in 1968.
Those scant facts don’t begin to suggest the physical and psychological suffering Kovály endured. For 27 years, she seems rarely to have had a day when she wasn’t cold, sick, hungry, homeless, or shunned for the unjust charges against her husband, who was exonerated as the process of de-Stalinization began under Khruschev. Along with life-threatening hardships, Kovály faced countless smaller humiliations. She writes that when survivors of Dachau or Auschwitz spoke of their experiences after the war, their more fortunate friends responded with comments such as, “Oh, yes, we too have suffered, how often there was not even margarine to spread on our bread …”
Kovály focuses on what she experienced and appears never to pad her book with accounts by historians or other victims, which makes her book read like a swift-moving dystopian novel narrated by a wise and clear-eyed storyteller who is appropriately outraged by what she sees. By dint of her husband’s work, she observed at close range the actions of the powerful, including the Party leaders who made scapegoats of Rudolf Margolius and others. That proximity to officialdom allows her include in her memoir a rare combination of poignant domestic scenes and telling observations about signal events of the Cold War.
Under a Cruel Star has much in common with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s account of the kidnapping of her infant son, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. Like Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Kovály married a prominent man and faced tragedy in full view of the public. She has Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s courage, intelligence, and keenness of perception about people and events. And she retained a similar ability to appreciate joy and beauty amid tragedy. Kovály died at the age of 91 in 2010, and her son, Ivan, said that her message to the world was: “I loved you! Live on!”
Best line: The government eventually offered to compensate Kovály for her husband’s execution and asked her to list her losses. She wrote: “Losses my Son and I Suffered Due to the Arrest and Conviction of Dr. Rudolf Margolius: (a) Loss of father (b) Loss of husband (c) Loss of honor (d) Loss of health (e) Loss of employment and possibility to complete studies (f) loss of faith in the Party and in justice.” Only at the very end did she write: “Loss of property.”
Worst line: “Sometime in the fall of 1951, I believe it was in November, Secretary General of the Party Rudolf Slánský was arrested.” Why the “I believe”? It should have been easy to confirm the date of that well-known incident.
Caveat lector: All quotations in this review come from The Victors and the Vanquished, translated by Ezrahim Kohák and published along with his memoir. Some material in the retranslated Under the Cruel Star may differ.
About the author: After the war, Kovály translated German, British and American fiction into Czech, including books by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark, William Golding, and Arnold Zweig.
Furthermore: Alfred Kazin said in a review of Kovály’s book quoted in her New York Times obituary: “This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 14, 2012
The first book in an award-winning series for children who are starting to read on their own
Frog and Toad Are Friends: An I CAN READ Book. By Arnold Lobel. HarperCollins, 64 pp., $16.99. Ages 4—8 (Grades K—2).
By Janice Harayda
Arnold Lobel called Beatrix Potter his artistic mother. If that’s true, he deserves a Son of the Year award for Frog and Toad Are Friends.
Potter casts a long shadow over stories about animals who act and dress like humans but retain characteristics of their species. Artists often try to avoid the Curse of Peter Rabbit by denying its existence: They create animal tales so garish or absurd that no one could confuse them with Potter’s exquisite naturalism. Lobel stays in the sun by taking the opposite tack: He nods to Potter by giving his stories neo-Victorian settings and clothing, making her era his own. In his “Frog and Toad” early readers, his characters live in fairy-tale cottages with period details — a potted fern, cross-hatched windows, and heavy, carved furniture — made fresh by a palette long on soft greens. This approach makes for escapist fun along with a psychological depth rare in limited-vocabulary books.
Frog and Toad Are Friends introduces in five short parables a pair of gentle amphibian best friends with complementary temperaments — the optimistic and gregarious Frog and the more pessimistic and reticent Toad. Like a long-married couple, Frog and Toad take care of each other in ways that are kind, natural, and amusing. In their first adventure they tackle small tasks that can seem Herculean to children — getting out of bed, coping with illness, finding a lost button, waiting for mail, and appearing in a swimsuit in front of friends.
Frog and Toad have a gift for telling the truth without being mean, a trait that emerges as they splash in a river in “A Swim.” Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit, a striped one-piece Victorian affair, and doesn’t want to leave the water while Frog and other creatures are watching. Sure enough, when he steps onto land, Frog laughs. Toad asks why. “I am laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.” Far from appearing wounded by this, Toad says matter-of-factly, “Of course I do.” He marches home with his head high, satisfied that Frog has admitted the truth, in a witty sketch that puts a happy ending on the tale.
Perhaps better than any story in Frog and Toad Are Friends, “A Swim” shows Lobel’s command of character. Frog doesn’t hurt Toad’s feelings by telling him he looks “funny” in a bathing suit because that is what his friend wants to hear. His comment is a validation of Toad’s view rather than an insult. And Lobel shows his sophistication as an author and artist in his ability to make such a distinction clearly implicit without expressing it in words. Frog and Toad Are Friends lacks the full-throttle drama of Mr. McGregor racing after Peter Rabbit with a rake shouting, “Stop thief!” But it has many quieter pleasures. Good artistic sons, like biological children, don’t have to look just like their parents.
Best line/picture: The final picture of Toad, marching off proudly in his ankle-length, green-and-white striped Victorian bathing suit, in “A Swim.”
Worst line/picture: None. But this review was based on the original 1970 hardcover edition. The literary and artistic quality of spinoffs and later editions may differ.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 1, 2012
Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:
“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …
“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”
March 29, 2012
An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush
The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.
By Janice Harayda
Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?
London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?
These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.
As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.
Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”
Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”
Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.