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.
March 16, 2013
February 9, 2013
Mayhem results when parents install spyware on their teenager’s computer
Hold Tight. By Harlan Coben. Dutton, 416 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Hold Tight ought to be catnip for those of us who have lived in New Jersey long enough to know that its loopy plot doesn’t lie far from reality. Up to a point, it delivers.
Harlan Coben uses in this suburban thriller a variation on the Agatha Christie formula – a machine-tooled plot strewn with clues, a smattering of local color and an eventual convergence of many threads that at first appear unrelated. But Hold Tight involves a sick violence that Christie wouldn’t have gone near. And it has no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot whose idiosyncrasies might have offset other characterizations that range from bland to stereotypical, as in the case of an icy feminist lawyer and shady men who wear “wifebeater tees.”
Some of the gore results from a morally questionable decision by Mike and Tia Baye, well-educated suburban parents who live a few miles from the Satin Dolls, “the famed gentlemen’s club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos.” The Bayes’ 16-year-old son, Adam, won’t explain why he has withdrawn from them after the suicide of a friend, so they install spyware on his computer. The snooping plunges the couple into something much worse than they had feared. It also sets up light philosophizing about violence: “What is in our makeup, in fact, that draws us to that which should sicken us?” The question appears unintentionally metafictional. In the first of many brutal scenes in Hold Tight, a thug beats an innocent woman to death so savagely that he didn’t just break the bones in her face but left them looking as though “they were ground into small chunks.”
Best line: A mother whose son died says, when someone mentions “closure”: “What does that even mean? … Can you imagine anything more obscene than having closure?”
Worst line: No. 1: “wifebeater tee” (used twice). “Wifebeater” is a nasty cliché that libels men who wear ribbed undershirts and don’t beat their wives. No. 2: “She made the twins dinner – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.” Really makes you see them as individuals, doesn’t it? No. 3: “The mall was pure Americana ginoromous.” “Ginormous” is cute, not funny.
Furthermore: The Guardian reviews Coben’s more recent Caught.
Published: 2010 (Dutton hardcover), 2009 (Signet paperback).
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 21, 2012
Spoiler warning: This review includes plot details. Stop here if you don’t want to know them.
Every Last One: A Novel. By Anna Quindlen. Random House, 299 pp., $26.
By Janice Harayda
An obtuse Vermont mother fails to see that her daughter’s creepy prom date is a potential sociopath who will slaughter several members of her family in this small-town soap opera by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Mary Beth Latham dithers when her husband urges her talk to the troubled Kiernan, who is stalking 17-year-old Ruby. “He’s such a nice kid,” she says. “He’s been like a part of our family.” Mary Beth has no apparent religion to comfort her after Kiernan goes on his murderous rampage, but she survives the help from a generous inheritance from her slain husband and a referral to a grief counselor, although recent studies have shown that such therapy can make things worse.
Kiernan has a different fate, but his motives make no more sense. The novel implies that his savagery resulted, in part, from his parents’ hostile divorce. Let the record show that the parents of Barack Obama divorced when he was two, and that one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, came from an intact family. And if the children of Every Last One tend to have more enlightened views than their parents, the adult female characters often sound like throwbacks to the 1950s. This is a novel in which the heroine observes, with no apparent irony: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”
Best line: No. 1: “She makes our youth seem like something Glen might have seen on the History Channel.” P. 26
Worst line: “My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold.” Chenille is tufted. The sentence is also confusing: It says one robe lies on the bed but describes two.
Published: 2010 (Random House hardcover edition), 2011 (Random House trade paperback).
About the author: Anna Quindlen won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 14, 2012
A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man
What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.
By Janice Harayda
American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.
These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.
So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.
This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”
Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”
Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”
A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.
Published: May 2012
Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.
Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 13, 2012
A mystery built on the theme that uncharacteristic behavior may reveal someone’s true character
Drawing Conclusions. By Donna Leon. Penguin, 260 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Guido Brunetti has a wife he loves “to the point of folly” and two children in whom he has “invested every hope of happiness on this earth.” Those facts alone set him apart from the many fictional detectives who live by variations on Rudyard Kipling’s ”Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, / He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
But Donna Leon’s Venetian police commissioner also has a rare wisdom and humanity in a field littered with sleuths who get by on wisecracks and macho swagger. Like Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Commissario Brunetti tends to solve crimes through a keen grasp of human nature rather than shoot-’em-up gunslinging or high forensic gimmickry. That pattern holds in the 20th Brunetti mystery, which involves the death of a widow who sheltered battered women in her Venice apartment. Several valuable drawings have vanished from the victim’s walls, including a Corot, and the case looks like an art theft turned tragic. Brunetti suspects that something more complex has occurred, and his findings ultimately make the lost artworks look like a red herring.
So the appeal of Drawing Conclusions lies less in its plotting than in its atmospheric portrait of Venice, its psychological insights, and its author’s ability to develop a theme across multiple characters, not just in that of the victim or a foe. Brunetti knows that as Dante’s Inferno has “thieves transformed into lizards, lizards into thieves, the moment of transformation invisible until complete,” people can be two things at once. Or, as his mother believed, uncharacteristic behavior can show someone’s true character. In this novel Brunetti shows that he, too, can be two things at once. And he paradoxically shows an admirable dimension of his character when he acts in an uncharacteristic way.
Best line: No. 1: He was “seduced into the suspicion that trace elements of humanity were still to be found in his superior’s soul.” No. 2: “Brunetti had struck on a truth, and he knew it: even the worst men wanted to be perceived as better than they were.”
Worst line: “a blonde woman.” “Blonde” is a noun that refers to a person, “blond” an adjective that describes a hair color. [Please see Victoria Corby's comment on different uses of "blond" and "blonde" in the U.S. and U.K.]
Published: 2011 (Heinemann hardcover), 2012 (Penguin paperback).
Furthermore: Leon talks to Tim Heald in a Telegraph interview about her Brunetti novels.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 22, 2012
Get sand in your shoes, not in the gears of your Nook or Kindle, at the beach this summer
By Janice Harayda
Have you noticed that many of this year’s summer reading lists sound as though they were written for the economic boom times of the Reagan era? Some of the most prominent round-ups have consisted only or mainly of new hardcovers with $25–$30 price tags. Yes, those books may have had $9.99 digital editions. But do you want to drip suntan oil onto — or get sand in the gears of — a Nook or Kindle? If not, here are some of the best recent paperbacks that you can buy for $16 or less.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Deborah Moggach. A group of spirited British men and men women move to a retirement home in India in a comic novel that has a thicker plot and sharper wit than the 2012 movie based loosely on its story.
Drawing Conclusions (Penguin Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Donna Leon. The humane Venice police investigator Guido Brunetti makes his 20th appearance in a mystery about the murder of a widow whose art works have disappeared, a book that Library Journal called “literary crime fiction at its best.”
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011), by Yiyun Li. Intelligent Chinese men and women maintain hope against the odds while trapped by circumstances fostered by a repressive Beijing government (“Souvenir”) or difficult upbringings (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”) in a collection of nine elegant short stories.
The Imperfectionists (Dial Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011) by Tom Rachman. Staff members at an English-language newspaper in Rome face the decline of their publication in a collection of tragicomic parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of love and work in a digital age. Their grief doesn’t keep them from writing headlines such as “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.”
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner paperbacks, $16, 2011), by S.C. Gwynne. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, S.C. Gwynne tells the story of the fall of the Comanches in a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He filters their decline through the lives Quanah Parker, their last great chief; Quanah’s white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Misson of World War II (HarperPerennial paperbacks, $15.99, 2012), by Mitchell Zuckoff. Never mind that the “most incredible rescue mission” of World War II took place on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mitchell Zuckoff has written an exciting and fast-paced account of how in the last days of World War II, the U.S. Army rescued service members stranded when their military plane crashed into a mountainous rainforest in New Guinea, where pythons grew to 15 feet and the natives were believed to practice cannibalism.
Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed paperbacks, £15, 2011), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. An English biographer has written a captivating history of a London boys’ school that thrived despite an eccentric headmaster and a staff of largely untrained teachers. Yes, £15 is slightly more than $16, but this book has had too little attention in the U.S. It deserves a break.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau paperbacks, $16, 2012), by Barbara Demick. A Los Angeles Times reporter won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for this remarkable portrait of North Korean defectors and the lives they had led under Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Demick shows the catastrophic effects of one of the world’s most repressive regimes as she tells the stories of six people who escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
April 18, 2012
Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda
The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call
By Janice Harayda
My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.
So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.
But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.
The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.
Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?
Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).
Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.
(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 14, 2012
Maybe He Should Have Called It ‘Cutting for Oliver Stone’ – A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’
Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence
Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.
But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.
Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”
This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.
Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”
Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.
Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.
Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”
Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.
Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless, might read it over two months instead of one.
Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).
Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda
November 30, 2009
The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:
The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools. First published in 1961.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.
Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.
A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.
You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.