One-Minute Book Reviews

October 22, 2013

Ex-Bronco Nate Jackson’s Football Memoir ‘Slow Getting Up’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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An iconoclast recalls the physical and mental bruises he sustained in the NFL

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile. By Nate Jackson. Harper, 243 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Nate Jackson recalls his injury-prone years in the NFL in a book that proves that a professional football player can use “contextualize” and “neophytic” in a sentence. He has not written his league’s answer to Andre Agassi’s Open, perhaps the best sports memoir of the past decade.

But unlike better-known players such as Brett Favre, Jackson has a sense of humor — by turns droll, self-mocking and sarcastic — that doesn’t spare his teams, the 49ers and the Broncos. He refers to every stadium as [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field and notes that the NFL has required its drug-testers to watch players urinate, not just collect cups,  ever since a member of one of its rosters was caught at an airport with a prosthetic penis called the Whizzinator.

As entertaining as some of this is, you wonder why Jackson felt the need to explain things such as that a lot of masturbation goes on in the hotel rooms of football players traveling without their wives or girlfriends. Did he think no one would have suspected it?

Best line: No. 1:  “So much of offensive football is lying with your body, getting the defender to think you are going somewhere you aren’t. Tell a story with your movements: a bloody lie!” No. 2:  Jackson says he lost some of his idealism when the Broncos replaced quarterback Jake Plummer, whose success had made him believe “there was room for an iconoclast in the cloistered institution of big football,” with the rookie Jay Cutler: “But the good/bad thing about football is that it moves too quickly for your conscientious objections to keep pace. It pulls you along by sheer force.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But I’m not a pregame self-gratifier.” (Accompanied by a report on players who are.) No. 2: “If the wedge comes free to me and the R2, and all the other guys get blocked, then the R2 and I must eat up the wedge and spill the returner outside into the arms of the R1.”

About the author: Nate Jackson spent more than six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a tight end. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003–2008. Ann Killon interviewed him about Slow Getting Up for a San Francisco Chronicle article in which he discusses his brief use of Human Growth Hormone at the end of his career.

Published: September 2013

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic and journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow @janiceharayda on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 21, 2013

Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:54 pm
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A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”

That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.

Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”

But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?

These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”

Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?

Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs — most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love — that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events.  Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?

If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.

Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”

Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother's death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”

Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 2, 2012

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: April 2012

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

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

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 29, 2012

Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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Current methods of treating ovarian cancer are “a scandal,” a scholar says

Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer. By Susan Gubar. Norton, 296 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Susan Gubar once hoped to die as swiftly as a relative found dead in her seat by ushers at the Metropolitan Opera House after a performance of Aida. She won’t get her wish.

Gubar was 63 years old and looking forward to retiring from an influential teaching career when she learned in late 2008 that she had Stage III epithelial ovarian cancer. Most women her age who develop the disease die within three years of the diagnosis. Doctors nonetheless treat them with draconian procedures that include “debulking” surgery, which reduces the size of tumors that can’t be removed completely. Such efforts, Gubar came to believe, may “destroy the pleasures of existence” for someone who gains few or no benefits from them.

Is the misery worth it? Gubar often sounds ambivalent as she describes the catastrophes that occurred during and after her debulking. Her calamities began with a bowel perforation during her operation. That mishap led to an ileostomy and to surgical drain irrigations that, she says, “exceeded any level of suffering I thought imaginable” and that morphine couldn’t touch. Afterward she kept “getting sucked into procedure after procedure, each with its ghastly physical repercussions.”

Gubar explains her repeated acquiescence partly by saying that she had two grown daughters who weren’t ready to lose her and that her treatments fostered a helplessness born of pain, fatigue, depression, and sedation. But you sense that there is more to it than that. Gubar calls herself a secular Jew “with no conventional religious faith to speak of.” Did she unwittingly turn medicine into her God? Did her lack of belief in an afterlife make it harder to let go of barbarous treatments? She asks but never satisfactorily answers the question: “how can those of us without firm religious convictions integrate the awareness and actuality of death and dying into our lives?” On the subject of faith, she offers what she acknowledges are “garbled” views such as: “I will love my family until death departs, and since death will never depart, I will love them always and forever.” What on Earth does “until death departs” mean?

In Memoir of a Debulked Woman Gubar interweaves her story with an overview of ovarian cancer in history and literature and with a polemic against the woeful state of treatments for it.  This approach gives her book a breadth lacking in most illness narratives while depriving it of the sharp focus of cancer memoirs such as Joyce Wadler’s My Breast and Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness. Much of the writing is stilted, repetitive, and padded with irrelevant anecdotes about Gubar’s family and friends. It would have benefited from a few pages on how doctors in other industrialized countries treat ovarian cancer.

But what Memoir of a Debulked Woman lacks lacks finesse, it makes up for in importance. No first-person account offers a more comprehensive description of the dismal options for women with late-stage ovarian cancer or makes a more passionate case that the current methods of treating it are “a scandal.” And in an age of medical overkill, those women share many of the dilemmas of patients who have other cancers with low three-year survival rates and who must decide whether to have potentially soul-destroying treatments. This gives the book a relevance that goes beyond the disease at its center.

Gubar’s cancer is in remission, an article in USA Today said last month, so her treatments seem to have extended her life at least slightly beyond what she could have expected. But her memoir makes clear that the precious extra months have come at a price that not everyone would want to pay. Gubar says that, when she’s feeling cynical, she believes that fifty years from now “doctors will look back at the treatment of ovarian cancer today and judge it medieval.” Her book should hasten that process.

Best line: No. 1: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.” No. 2: Gubar offers a good list of “the cockamamie conundrums confronted by people treated for ovarian cancer” (although “cockamamie” is too light-hearted a word for some of them). Among them: Debulking surgery calls for surgeons to remove, while a patient is under general anesthesia, any organs to which the ovarian cancer has spread. So women don’t know beforehand which body parts they will lose and can’t “decide that they would prefer not to … risk the high rate of postoperative complication.”

Worst line: No. 1: Gubar criticizes Joan Acocella (who called her an “amateur” who spouts “shocking nonsense” in The New Yorker) in a way that makes her look worse than Acocella. No. 2: One of many padded sentences: “The radiologist inserted the thick tube into the center of my right buttock: in the Midwest, ‘the butt'; in New York, ‘the tush'; in the South, ‘the bottom'; in fancy French, ‘the derrière'; in pseudo-science, ‘the gluteus maximus'; on the street, ‘the ass'; in Don’s jokey repetition of the nurse’s word, ‘the bee-hind.'”

Caveat lector: Gubar warns: “For those who have reason to believe or need to believe that their cancer is curable, please remember that this book is not about you.”

Published: April 2012

About the author: Gubar is the co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

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

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

May 18, 2012

What I’m Reading … Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,What I'm Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (Norton, 296 pp., $24.95), by Susan Gubar.

What it is: A feminist scholar’s memoir of the medical “calamities” she endured after undergoing the standard medical treatment for advanced ovarian cancer, known as debulking surgery.

Why I’m reading it: Few authors have written in depth about having advanced ovarian cancer, partly because few women survive the disease long enough to do it.

Quote from the book: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: April 2012

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman or learn more about the book.

About the author: Gubar co-write The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a book widely used in college classes.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

April 20, 2012

Heda Kovály’s Memoir of Nazi and Stalinist Tyranny, ‘Under a Cruel Star’

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 pm
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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.
www.janiceharayda

March 16, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,’ a Memoir

Filed under: Memoirs,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 160 pp., $25), by S.L. Wisenberg

What it is: A feminist breast-cancer diary that grew out of Wisenberg’s blog, Cancer Bitch.

Why I’m reading it: Sandi Wisenberg deals briefly with the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer research foundation, which recently outraged feminists and others by revoking its funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision it reversed.

Quote from the book: “My accountant asked if cancer changed me. I suppose, slightly. I know more about cancer.”

Publication date: March 2009

Read an excerpt from The Adventures of Cancer Bitch: Some material in the memoir appeared in different form on the Cancer Bitch blog, including part of this post about Wisenberg’s bone pain after a Taxol infusion.

Furthermore: Wisenberg co-directs the M.A./M.F.A in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University .

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 23, 2010

James Lord’s ‘A Giacometti Portrait’ — Sitting for a Master

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:27 pm
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A timeless memoir of watching an artist at work in Paris in the 1960s

A Giacometti Portrait. By James Lord. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 117 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1964 James Lord sat for a portrait by his friend Alberto Giacometti, who had won the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale two years earlier. Lord — a young, handsome, American writer — took notes and drew on them for an elegant memoir that has retained its appeal for nearly half a century.

A Giacometti Portrait gives a vibrant account of the work habits of a man who lit cigarettes as he painted (holding them in his left hand, which also held his palette and brushes) and seemed unaffected by the whorls of smoke that wreathed his head. The book is also a perceptive study of an artist who believed he could never reproduce on canvas what he saw but who had a compulsion to try that caused him continual anxiety.

At times it was exhausting take part in “an effort that acknowledged in advance its own futility but which at the same time insisted that nothing was more valid than to make that effort anyway,” Lord says. One day Giacometti lamented that the portrait was going badly: “It’s the revenge of the brush on the painter who doesn’t know how to use it.” Later that day, he seemed to change his mind. The painting gave him an “opening” to make progress: “This is the first time in my life I’ve had such an opening.”

For all the ups and downs, Lord enjoyed the 18 days that Giacometti spent on his portrait and had the foresight to take photographs of the picture different stages, a dozen of which appear in his book. He doesn’t speculate on whether his friend’s hairpin mood turns might betoken more than the usual artistic insecurities, perhaps a low-grade mania, and his restraint has helped to keep his work from becoming dated: It lacks the therapeutic cant that of recent memoirs. Apart from its insights into the creative processes of a modern master, A Giacometti Portrait has striking glimpses of the artist’s relations with his wife, his dealers, his admirers, and his brother Diego, and others who moved in and out of his Paris studio.

In an optimistic moment, Giacometti suggests to Lord that his portrait may lead to an artistic breakthrough: “You see, you’ve done me a tremendous favor.” No evidence suggests that the work was a watershed for an artist better known for his attenuated sculptures that suggest the weariness of Europe after World War II. But Lord did Giacometti another kind of favor with this memoir. In an afterword, he expresses the hope that people will see in his book a small part of what made the artist remarkable and adds, rightly, “To see even so little will be to see very much.”

Best line: Giacometti explains why he believes Cycladic heads are “more alive and convincing” than Roman busts: “To make a head really lifelike is impossible, and the more you struggle to make it lifelike the less like life it becomes. But since a work of art is an illusion anyway, if you heighten the illusory quality, then you come closer to the effect of life.”

Worst line: None.

Published: 1965 (Doubleday hardcover edition), 1980 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback). This review is based on the 1965 book.

You may also want to read: Man With a Blue Scarf, the English art critic Martin Gayford’s 2010 account of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. A Giacometti Portrait is perhaps more revealing because Lord and Giacometti were closer than Gayford and Freud are, but the books are of similarly high quality.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

October 25, 2010

‘Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud’ — Art Critic Martin Gayford Sees Himself on Canvas

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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A British critic’s diary having his portrait painted

Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. By Martin Gayford. With 64 illustrations. Thames & Hudson, 256 pp., $40.

By Janice Harayda

Edgar Degas once lamented the injustice of having his paintings judged by art critics who had never earned their living with a brush and palette. “What a fate!” he said. “To be handed over to writers!”

Fewer painters might complain if they had interpreters as intelligent and forbearing as the British art critic Martin Gayford. Between November 2003 and April 2005, Gayford spent about 250 hours posing for an oil painting and an etching by Lucian Freud, whose ego appears to rival the late Norman Mailer’s. The experience fell “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s,” at least if your barber knew Garbo and Picasso and after trimming your sideburns, wanted to have champagne and caviar with you at a high-toned London bistro.

Gayford appears to have relished the sittings even as they became an endurance test. Freud sat him in front of a black screen for the Man With a Blue Scarf and made him keep posing after the head was finished and only the space around it remained to be filled it.  He told Gayford: “The picture is absolutely about what your head is doing to that screen.” Freud drove himself as he did his sitter. In his early 80s, he was still painting standing up, working 10 hours a day, on five or six portraits at a time.

As the months wore on, Gayford kept the tedium at bay in part by drawing Freud into conversations on painting and other subjects. Should a picture resemble the sitter? “Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture,” Freud replied. “For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters.” If strict verisimilitude doesn’t matter, what does? Gayford quotes a comment Freud made decades earlier: “the picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire life, a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

Man With a Blue Scarf takes the form of a graceful diary that says as much about being painted as about the painter. Gayford knew that a sense of mortality pervades Freud’s work: “Even images of the young and healthy are full of a sense of the soft vulnerability of flesh, its potential to sag and wither.” And his sittings might have turned in to a Dorian Gray tale, the story of a man horrified to see his sins emerge in his portrait. He needn’t have worried. Gayford liked the painting and sees in it the intensity of his interest in the process: “It’s me looking at him looking at me.”

Gayford shows a Boswellian refusal to troll for flaws in his subject’s work or character, and his book tends to reinforce Robert Hughes’s argument that Freud is the greatest living realist painter. But Man With a Blue Scarf, if flattering, isn’t hagiography. Gayford holds his fire elegantly, and his ability to do so appears heroic, not sycophantic, given that if he had not, we would clearly not have the first book-length account of sitting for a major artist since James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait in 1965. Art history would be richer if every great painter did a portrait of a critic who wrote about the experience.

Many questions linger about the making of this memoir. To what degree is the book authorized? Did Freud see the manuscript and request changes? How did Gayford reconstruct conversations that took place when he couldn’t have been holding a notebook? Whether or not the answers ever emerge, Man With a Blue Scarf is a fascinating study in the “remorselessly intimate” process of being painted. During the sittings, Gayford spent more time with Freud than with anyone except his wife and children. “I’m not sure whether it is filling a hole in my life,” he admits, “but it is enthralling.” For all the cabin fever that the sittings must have involved, Gayford makes you see why the process was thrilling.

Best line: No. 1: “It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again …” No. 2: “The paradox of portraiture, especially this marathon variety, is that the target is always a moving one. Physiologically, and psychologically, a living being is always in a state of flux. Moods shift, energy levels go up and down, the body itself slowly ages.”

Worst line: Freud says Picasso was “no more than 5’ or 5’ 1’” and that much of his attitude toward life was affected by his being small. But Picasso’s height is often given as 5’4”, and Gayford doesn’t explain why he quotes a different figure. You don’t know whether he agrees with Freud or doesn’t want to correct him.

Caveat lector: The review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: October 2010

About the author: Gayford, the art critic for Bloomberg News in Europe, was the art critic for the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. He talks about posing for Freud in an Acoustiguide recording used with a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Man With a Blue Scarf and the etching made soon afterward, Portrait Head.

Furthermore: Lucian Freud is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Robert Hughes wrote the text for Lucian Freud: Paintings which provides useful background for Man With a Blue Scarf.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

September 30, 2010

Writing About War Is Hell: Megan Stack’s Memoir, ‘Every Man in This Village Is a Liar’

A foreign correspondent looks back on her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. By Megan K. Stack. Doubleday, 255 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Megan Stack wears her emotions on her flak jacket. She was twenty-five years old when, a few weeks after the Twin Towers fell, the Los Angeles Times sent her to Afghanistan to cover the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In this overwrought memoir she tries, as she puts it, to pull “poetry from war.”

At first exhilarated by her posting to Afghanistan, she grew disillusioned by the brutality and corruption she saw over the next six years as she traveled to strategic outposts in what the Bush administration called “the war on terror” – Iraq, Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She maps her disenchantment along with her destinations in Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, a memoir in the form of a series of linked narrative essays about the cataclysms she observed.

Stack writes in a florid style far removed from that of great war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and George Orwell, whose unembellished prose threw the horrors of combat into high relief. And her prose is much more self-conscious than that of veteran contemporary journalists like Martha Raddatz of ABC News, whose The Long Road Home is one of the best books on the human cost of war in Iraq.  Stack slips into Libya and finds Moammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship a place where a doctor “muttered nervously,” a government agent “laughed nastily,” and “Sun glinted evilly on the sea.” The angrier she gets, the more overheated her writing becomes. She is seething with rage by the time she sees old and sick people abandoned by fleeing kin during Israel’s heavy bombing of Lebanon, where the terrorist group Hezbollah was based, in 2006:

“I hate the Lebanese families for leaving them here. I hate Hezbollah for not evacuating them, for ensuring civilian deaths that will bolster their cause. I hate Israel for wasting this place on the heads of the feeble. I hate all of us for participating in this great fiction of the war on terror, for pretending there is a framework, a purpose, for this torment.”

Like much else in this book, that rant tells you more about Stack than about the conflict she seeks to describe. And what it tells you is muddled: It conflates the post-9/11 “war on terror” with the older hostilities among Israel and its neighbors.

When she looks outward instead of inward, Stack can offer sharp portraits of her subjects, including countries Americans regard as their allies. In Egypt she is tear-gassed as president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s “modern-day pharaoh,” rigs an election by using riot police to keep supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood party away from the polls. Her report on the savage crackdown on voters lends credibility to words of a human-rights official who told her “that Egypt, of all the Arab states, came closest” to having a gulag.

The account of election fraud in Egypt also reveals her eye for subtle details about how violence affects ordinary lives. Stack notes that as voters were being tear-gassed by Mubarak’s legions, protesters shredded rags and pressed them to their mouths. “Egyptian hospitality unflagged,” she writes,” “they kept offering me their rags because I was a foreigner.”

Best line: “McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks make women stand in separate lines [in Saudi Arabia]. Hotels like the InterContinental and Sheraton won’t rent a woman a room without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone are regarded as prostitutes.”

Worst line: No. 1: “I learned to count the fighter jets that passed overhead in my sleep.” How could she count them if she was sleeping? No. 2: “Violence is a reprint of itself, an endless copy. I mean to say that by itself, violence is not the point. A bomb, a battle, a bullet is just a hole torn in the fabric of the day.” Tell it to someone who took a bullet. No. 3. “Sunlight glinted evilly …” Every Man in This Village Is a Liar brims with cloying phrases like that one.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: The Long Road Home, a fine account by by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz of the 2004 assault on American soldiers in Sadr City Iraq, and its aftermath.

Published: June 2010

Caveat lector: This review of Every Man In This Village Is a Liar was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ. This post shows the cover of the U.K. edition of the book.

About the author: Stack reports from Beijing for the Los Angeles Times. She was a finalist, with others in the paper’s Baghdad bureau, for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda.

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