Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”
June 18, 2009
June 10, 2009
It’s perversely satisfying to learn that a great critic dislikes a book that you thought you alone didn’t enjoy. In my life an example involves The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 World War II novel that grew out of Norman Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman on Luzon and made his reputation while he was in his 20s. For years I’ve considered this book one of the most overrated of the 20th century and far inferior to war novels often mentioned in the same breath, including All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Chief among its problems is that it tells the stories of a variety of soldiers without making any of them uniquely memorable.
It’s always seemed to me that The Naked and the Dead might have had less praise if Mailer had been 30 years older when he wrote it and if the novel had not come out a few years after World War II, when critics could compare it to relatively few books about the conflict. So I was heartened to find that Gore Vidal — one of the great literary critics of our time — years ago had a similar response that I had missed. Vidal wrote in a 1960 essay in the Nation, reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972):
“My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself as changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux’s earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbon copies of a Dos Passos work.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what Vidal said when he learned that Mailer posthumously won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for for The Castle in the Forest?
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 1, 2009
May 25, 2009
In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love
Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).
But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.
“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.
Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.
Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:
“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”
Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.
Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”
Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.
Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
May 23, 2009
Allons, Enfants! Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘Anatole,’ a Caldecott Finalist by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone
A friendly is mouse is startled to find that Parisians dislike his nibbling on leftovers
Anatole. By Eve Titus. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Knopf, 40 pages, $14.95, ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Some runners-up for the Caldecott award have had longer and more active lives than the books that defeated them. A famous example is Madeline, a 1940 finalist edged out by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln.
Another case in point is the delightful Anatole, a tale of French mouse shocked to learn that humans dislike his feasting on their leftovers. The book that defeated it for the 1957 medal, A Tree Is Nice, remains popular and admired. But if you factor in the sequels, Anatole has the edge with children. Adults have reason to love the book, too.
Anatole has a plot that – if strong in its heyday – looks Herculean by the standards of the washed-out storylines of so many contemporary picture books. Anatole is happy to sneak into houses and nibble on leftovers until Parisians offend his pride by complaining about the scavenging. A mouse has to feed his family – in this case, his wife, Doucette, and six children – but Anatole has a conscience and self-respect. “If only we could give people something in return — ” Doucette says.
Inspired by his wife’s words, Anatole begins slipping into the Duval Cheese Factory by moonlight, tasting the products, and pinning onto the cheeses notes that suggest ways to improve them. “Less black pepper … more grated onion … another pinch of salt.”
Will Anatole get caught? This question in itself makes for an exciting story. But Anatole also develops a worthy theme nondidactically: Giving back makes you feel good even if you can’t repay others in kind. And as Meghan Cox Gurdon has noted, the book gives English-speakers a chance to enliven a reading by adopting an outrageous French accent, either for the English text or the scattering of French words like, “Touché!”
Paul Galdone adds to the Gallic flair by illustrating his early 20th-century Parisian scenes with just three colors – red, white, and blue – and to the suspense by alternating tricolor pictures with black-and-white spreads. Some spoilsports might wish that Eve Titus had set her story in China, which would have allowed for shop signs in Mandarin – a language that that has spiked in popularity among preschoolers – instead of French. As Anatole’s helper Gaston says, “C’est la vie!” A Chinese version might have had its advantages, but would it have had as many pictures of delicious cheeses?
Best line/picture: Anatole is mortified to hear Parisians complaining about mice: “ ‘But I never dreamed they regarded us this way,’ cried the unhappy Anatole. ‘It is horrible to feel scorned and unwanted! Where is my self-respect? My pride? MY HONOR?’”
Worst line/picture: None.
Published: 1956 (McGraw-Hill first edition), 2009 (Knopf 50th Anniversary Edition).
Furthermore: Galdone won Caldecott Honor Book citations for Anatole and the first of more than a half dozen sequels, Anatole and the Cat.
Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.
May 16, 2009
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear
Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.
The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.
But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.
A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).
Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
May 11, 2009
The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.
This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:
“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”
As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 18, 2009
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! The Case for ‘Cinderella’ (Including, Yes, the Disney Version) — Classics Every Child Should Read
The latest in a series of posts on classic children’s picture books
Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Book Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99.
By Janice Harayda
For several decades, the story of Cinderella has been anything but a Cinderella story. Scholars have attacked it for promoting female passivity, for giving stepmothers a bad name, and for equating beauty with virtue: The pretty Cinderella is good and her ugly stepsisters are bad. I read a critique that accused it of promoting capitalist values because – at least in the Disney the version, the one most familiar today — Cinderella is rewarded for the hard work of scrubbing floors and churning butter, as though we’d want the kids to read books where characters were rewarded for sloth.
There’s some truth to the all complaints. Variations on Cinderella have existed for centuries or more, and they typically reflect ideals of an earlier time. But if I had children, I’d want them to know this tale of a mistreated girl who marries a king’s son, and not just because it’s a defining myth of our age. The case against Cinderella was stronger in the past. If the story is one of female passivity — that of a girl rescued by a prince — it used to reflect the expectations of society as a whole.
Those assumptions have changed. Girls today see more countervailing influences to Cinderella — the tortured marriage of Charles and Diana showed us all what can happen when you marry a prince — so there seems to be less harm in reading it. There are also more benefits when surveys of cultural literacy have shown that children are increasingly growing up without understanding the ideas that have shaped civilizations – not just fairy tales but myths, legends, fables, Bible stories, and more.
As a child, I loved an oversized tie-in edition to the 1950 animated Disney musical Cinderella — “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”! – and read it until its corrugated pop-up pumpkin fell off. A few weeks ago, I was startled to find Walt Disney’s Cinderella in a Little Golden Book Classic format in the new-children’s-books section of a good bookstore. No pop-up pumpkin, but everything else is identical. No less surprising is that the Little Golden Book Classic is better than many recent editions, including some others from Disney, in part because its cover shows Cinderella in rags near a brick fireplace, which makes the meaning of the title clear right away. Some versions have a princess on the cover that dilutes the message and make the book look like just another princess fantasy, instead of the mother lode.
I’m sure that at the age of seven, I liked my Disney version partly because its Cinderella has blond hair and blue-green eyes like me (which plays into stereotypes of the fair-haired as virtuous, given that one of her stepsisters has black hair and another red). But today you can find a United Nations of Cinderella stories at bookstores and libraries, and they have title characters of varied ancestry: Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, Hispanic, Cambodian, Egyptian, Alaskan, Hmong. And if some of these still seem to be a font of stereotypes, they make clear it would be more accurate to call Cinderella something else: an archetype who has never lost her appeal.
Best line: Some modern versions of Cinderella don’t explain how the title character got her name. The Little Golden Book Classic does: “But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died. And his second wife was harsh and cold to her lovely stepdaughter. She cared only for her two ugly stepdaughters.
“Everyone called the stepdaughter Cinderella now since she sat by the cinders to keep warm as she worked hard, dressed only in rags.”
Worst line: Cinderella had “a puppy named Bruno” before her father died. The name “Bruno” is odd in context. And the dog probably shouldn’t have a name at all, because it’s used only twice, and an old horse (which becomes a coachman) and the mice (which turn into horses) don’t have names.
Listen to the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella on a site that doesn’t include a film clip from the movie. You can also hear it on YouTube sites that include a clip, but these may not be legal.
Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.
February 5, 2009
A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s
A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.
What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.
But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.
Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”
“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.
Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.
This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
February 3, 2009
By Janice Harayda
“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. And that line suggests one of many reasons to love her masterpiece: its sharp commentary on relations between the sexes.
Middlemarch tells the wonderful story of an intelligent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, whose desire to be useful leads her to wed to a repressed clergyman who lacks her passion for life. But the novel is far more than a portrait of mismatch. The action in Middlemarch unfolds against the backdrop of two great social upheavals: the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England and enactment of Reform Bill of 1832 that made Parliament more representative of ordinary people.
Eliot sets Dorothea’s private dramas against these cataclysms and shows, as she writes, “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” The external forces include a society treats women as an underclass. And part of Eliot’s genius is that she hasn’t written a broadside against injustice but a book often called the first great multiplot novel in English. Middlemarch is a brilliant portrait of both sexes, never more so than in famous coda: “ … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The full text of Middlemarch is available for free on Project Gutenberg . A good, six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, available on video and DVD, starred Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.