One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2014

‘Women Behaving Badly’ — True Stories of Notorious Female Killers

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction,True Crime,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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One of America’s best historical true-crime writers recalls women who made a fatal mistake by the lake

Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers: An Anthology. By John Stark Bellamy II. Gray & Co., 255 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What a pity that the FBI didn’t launch its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until 1950. An earlier start might have allowed the spy agency to tap a few of the female killers in this sparkling collection of true-crime tales, most of which deal with murders committed in the Cleveland area in the late 19th or early 20th century.

It may or may not be true, as John Stark Bellamy asserts in the preface to Women Behaving Badly, that “there is simply no comparison in cunning, quality, and sheer entertainment value between the shallow, predictable murders of men and the complex, richly nuanced slayings by women.” But this book makes clear that Hollywood does an injustice to female killers when it stereotypes them as gun molls, action heroines or sex-obsessed stalkers.

The 16 tales in the collection deal chiefly with Bonnies without Clydes, women who took the initiative in crime instead of serving as men’s foils, and some testify to a different form of female solidarity than has inspired anthologies like Sisterhood is Powerful. One of the most chilling accounts recalls the fatal 1919 stabbing of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber by assassins his wife had hired, a crime that remains “the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.” Another tale focuses on Velma West, who along with three other inmates escaped in 1939 from a women’s prison, where she was serving time for smashing her husband’s skull with a clawhammer. (Captured in Dallas, West went back to the Marysville Reformatory and implied that her murdered spouse had been too weak to live with her: “He couldn’t take it. I hit him playfully on the head with a hammer one night and that was that.”) A third tale reconsiders the case of the sadistic 1950s housewife Mary Barger, who had help from a 16-year-old niece when she tortured her brother-in-law’s two daughters, who were living with with her while their father served in the Air Force.

Bellamy tells his stories with an infectious zeal for his subjects’ audacity and an admiration for the prosecutors who matched wits with them, traits that in this and earlier books have established him as one of America’s best writers of historical true crime. He avoids the clichés and portentous tones of television shows like 48 Hours — which regularly describe victims “beautiful” people who “always had a smile” — and leaves the impression that he would shudder at the word “closure.” Just when you’re convinced that only the dimmest shield-wearer would have seen the 1905 death of Minnie Peters as a “suicide,” he writes: “But before you dismiss Cleveland police chief Fred Kohler as an utter moron, consider this: He may have been right about Minnie killing herself.” Without special pleading, Bellamy also shows a keen sympathy for the horrific circumstances that could drive women to crime. He notes rightly that some of his subjects might have had “a happier fate if they had lived in a more enlightened age.” Although he doesn’t doesn’t say so directly, at least a few of the women in his book might have avoided tragedy had they lived in times of safety nets like unemployment insurance, rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for abused women.

Perhaps the most poignant story in Women Behaving Badly involves Anna Kempf, a Hungarian immigrant who faced eviction from her home after being abandoned in 1928 by a husband who left her with three young daughters to support. Kempf had spent months visiting private and public welfare organizations, pleading vainly for financial help, and had tried unsuccessfully to place her children in an orphanage to keep them off the streets. The news that she was about to lose her job seems to have been the last straw: Kempf tried to kill herself and her children by dishing up bowls of chocolate ice cream laced with rat poison. Her youngest daughter died, and Kempf was indicted for first-degree murder. But her heartbreaking plight so struck the public that one prospective juror, upon receiving his jury-duty fee from the court clerk, said loudly: “Have this cashed for me and give the money to Mrs. Kempf to buy Christmas presents for the other two girls.” A judged sentenced her to probation and “took the opportunity to criticize the social service organizations that had so signally failed to help Anna Kempf in her hour of desperate need.” Stories like Kempf’s may have a Cleveland setting but speak to universal themes that give this book relevance beyond the Midwest.

Among the women in the book who became fugitives, only Mabel Champion had the last laugh on the law. Champion kept a four-inch stiletto in her purse and was wearing eight large diamond rings when, at a crowded restaurant in Cleveland’s theater district on a summer night in 1922, she pulled out a .38-caliber Colt revolver and shot a carnival promoter who had questioned her virtue. (“I did what any woman would do,” she explained to reporters. “I shot Edward O’Connell because he insulted me.”) She received a 20-year sentence, but after serving less than two years, she tucked a crude dummy into her prison bed and walked out of the Marysville Reformatory forever. A nationwide dragnet failed to find her. And although it’s unlikely, given her age — which would today be more than 100 – Bellamy “likes to think she’s still out there, laughing her low Texas belly laugh at the baffled lawmen who couldn’t keep this sensational Jazz-Age baby tied down.” Perhaps she even felt insulted that — when the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has included only eight women — the FBI never chose, however belatedly, include her.

Best line: Why do women use poison as a murder weapon? “Poisoning is generally furtive, an ideal quality for someone confronting an adversary of superior muscular strength of social power,” Bellamy writes. “No messy hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of firearms, or knife-fighting technique is required. Poison is easily acquired, hidden, and disguised: many lethal poisons have nonhomicidal uses and are part of the fabric of everyday life, as any amateur gardener or pest control professional can attest. It can be stealthily administered and is difficult to detect — as many a delayed exhumation has shown.”

Worst line: Fred Gienke suffered “days of excruciating agony” after his niece, Martha Wise, put arsenic in his water. When is agony not “excruciating”?

Published: 2005. All but two of the true-crime stories in Women Behaving Badly first appeared in one of Bellamy’s earlier collections, which include the delightful They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. The book has 32 black-and-white photographs.

Conflict alert: Bellamy wrote so many excellent reviews for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor that I have a permanent bias in favor of his writing.

Jan is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her novels include The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s). She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2013

‘Toms River’ – Why Did So Many Children Get Cancer in a Jersey Shore Town?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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A real-life environmental detective story about toxic wastes suspected of causing cancer in children

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Bantam, 538 pp., $28.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was the capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States, and Toms River stood at a crossroads of that dark enterprise. In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions.

Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.

Many of the victims’ parents suspected that the problem lay in the toxic wastes dumped by or emitted from the smokestacks of Ciba and other polluters, and they spent years trying to prove it. Their efforts had impressive results — a government investigation, a cleanup of dump sites, and more rigorous testing of the town water. But the parents received no financial settlement from polluters until their legal team expanded to include Jan Schlichtmann, the brash lawyer whose gladiatorial fight for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass., inspired A Civil Action. In 2001 he helped to negotiate an estimated $35 million payout to the Toms River families, a sum Fagin calls “unquestionably the largest in a residential cancer cluster case, dwarfing the $8 million Woburn settlement of 1986.”

Schlichtmann does not appear until page 349 of the story, and when he does, he has mellowed enough to urge the victims’ relatives to stay out of court. And his late and subdued arrival — and Fagin’s penchant digressing into epidemiological history — make Toms River a slower-paced and less splashy book than A Civil Action. But it is perhaps a more valuable one. Its focus on science and citizen action, not on a go-for-broke lawyer, shows more clearly than Jonathan Harr’s bestseller how difficult it is — even for prosecutors and environmental agencies armed with subpoena power and sophisticated databases — to determine what caused a cancer cluster.

Fagin notes that “Toms River had an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution and a discernible cluster of childhood cancer, and the two seemed to line up, roughly, in what looked like a cause-and-effect relationship.” But the case that the victims’ families hoped to make against polluters was impossible to prove:

“Even with all the pollution and cancer in Toms River, the apparent association could never be confirmed definitively because of the unanswerable questions about long ago exposures and also because of the enigmatic nature of cancer, which struck so unpredictably and had so many possible causes.”

Toms River has cleaner water than it did 30 years ago and no leukemia cluster, but whether other towns could marshall the resources that enabled it to make those gains is doubtful. The main legacy of Toms River, Fagin notes, “has been to solidify government opposition to conducting any more Toms River–style investigations.”

Best line: In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency posted its first official list of the country’s most dangerous toxic waste dumps, known as “Superfund” sites because a “superfund” would pay to clean them up if the government couldn’t force the dumpers to do it: “Sixty-five sites on the original Superfund list were in the undisputed capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States: New Jersey, which had 24 more sites than its closest rival, Michigan. With nine dumps on the list, Ocean County alone had more Superfund sites than 36 states.” Two of the Ocean County sites were in Toms River.

Worst line: Ciba-Geigy blundered when it faced unflattering news stories about all the treated wastewater it was pumping through a pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile offshore from Ortley Beach: “The company responded with all the finesse and humility of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.” That might be true, but the image is tired.

Furthermore: Learn more about Toms River on Dan Fagin’s website. Wonder how close you live to a hazardous waste dump? Click on your state on this Environmental Protection Agency map of Superfund sites.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2013

Coming Soon – A Real-Life Environmental Detective Story

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm
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Suppose that an unusually large number of children in your town developed cancers that seemed to result from an environmental hazard such as air or water pollution. What would it take to prove it? A group of parents in Toms River, NJ, found out when their children were diagnosed with cancers that they believed to have been caused by toxic wastes dumped by the town’s largest employer. Dan Fagin describes their fight for justice in Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam, 2013), an environmental detective story that involves midnight dumping, criminal sabotage, and other subterfuge. A review of the book will appear soon on 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

September 22, 2013

Sherri Fink’s ‘Five Days at Memorial’ – Fatal Choices at a Hospital Hit by Katrina

Filed under: Current Events,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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“What is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing?”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. By Sherri Fink. Crown, 558 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

If you’d like to read a horror story, you could pick up Stephen King’s just-published sequel to The Shining. Or you could brace yourself for this nonfiction account of the disasters that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina trapped more than 200 patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

The scale of the calamities took on an alarming legal dimension when, a year after the 2005 storm, the Louisiana attorney general ordered the arrests of a doctor and two nurses suspected of having given fatal overdoses of morphine and a sedative to critically ill patients stranded at Memorial by floodwaters. The case was complicated by an ad hoc evacuation plan that the hospital staff had developed as the crisis intensified: The healthiest patients, doctors decided, would leave first when rescuers arrived. Two groups would go last: the sickest patients and those who had filled out Do Not Resuscitate orders — even if, as was true of 81-year-old Vera LeBlanc, a patient had filled out the form more than a decade earlier. The evacuation plan specified that patients who could walk would be among the first to board the Coast Guard helicopters and privately hired airboats that were arriving intermittently. And it meant that in the five days before the last person left Memorial, doctors and nurses had to make life-or-death decisions they might have avoided if they had received a timely rescue or if the hospital had followed the widely accepted medical protocol of giving the highest priority to the sickest patients and those whose lives depended on machines.

Faced with these realities, a grand jury declined to indict the arrested doctor and the New Orleans district attorney decided not to prosecute the nurses. But the situation raised lingering ethical issues that the physician-turned-journalist Sherri Fink explored in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for the New York Times and the nonprofit website ProPublica. As Fink summarized them in the Times: “Which patients should get a share of limited resources, and who decides? What does it mean to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and does that end justify all means? Where is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing? How, if at all, should doctors and nurses be held accountable for their actions in the most desperate of circumstances, especially when their government fails them?”

Fink explores those questions further in a book that is as important as it is repetitive and disorganized. Laura Miller has noted on Salon that parts of Five Days at Memorial read like a “notebook dump.” If that is perhaps too harsh, it suggests the lack of a cohesive point of view that might have unified a book for which the author says she drew on more than 500 interviews. Fink tells her story from multiple perspectives — among them, those of doctors, nurses, and relatives of patients who died while waiting to be evacuated. As she moves from the hospital that provides the setting the first half of the book to the legal proceedings that inform the second, she repeats facts and shifts gears imperfectly. Fink says five times that a patient named Emmett Everett weighed 380 pounds. And a long dramatis personae does not always prevent confusion about who is speaking or why someone appears in the book.

Amid the welter of viewpoints, Fink withholds her own except in an epilogue that deals with what doctors in New Orleans and elsewhere have learned — or not learned — about disaster relief.  Does she believe staff members at the Memorial committed murder or euthanasia? She offers only clues. In one of them, she gives the last line of her story to a grand juror who says she was convinced — and believed her fellow jurors were, too – that “a crime had occurred” at Memorial.

That is a remarkably tepid conclusion for a book about 45 deaths, more than a few of them suspicious. Unlike physician-authors such as Atul Gawande and Perri Klass, who merge elegantly their literary and medical identities, Fink seems to be groping for a voice. In the absence of one, she relies on the honorable journalistic tradition of looking for sources who express her views. But that approach works best when reporters structure their books in a way that leads to the clear and inevitable — if implicit – conclusion that is missing from this one. Few people can be better-informed than Fink on some of the urgent questions raised by Five Days at Memorial. As valuable as her book is, it might have been all the more so had she risked offering a few of the answers that she is uniquely qualified to give.

Best line: Fink notes that Charity Hospital in New Orleans had nearly twice as many patients as Memorial and faced similar challenges, including lost power and a lack of working plumbing, elevators, telephones and computers. But fewer than 10 people died at Charity while 45 did at Memorial. Charity did better, in part, because the staff continued to provide services like physical therapy and encouraged workers to maintain shifts and a regular sleep schedule: “This signaled that the situation was under some degree of control and kept panic to a minimum. There was an active effort to stem rumors. ‘You can only say it if you’ve seen it,’ staff were told.
“Perhaps most important, Charity’s leaders avoided categorizing a group of patients as too ill to rescue. The sickest were taken out first instead of last.”

Worst line: “Like many of the hospital staff around him, his professional association with what was now Memorial Medical Center” stretched back decades.

Published: September 2013

Read Fink’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article on how doctors at Memorial cared for patients during and after Katrina.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

August 29, 2013

Evan Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’: Custer at Little Bighorn

Filed under: American History,Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

Did an undiagnosed case of OCD contribute to a military disaster?

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. By Evan S. Connell. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $13.29, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Americans didn’t always find it easy to cast George Armstrong Custer as an imperialist lackey who attacked Indians justly angered by broken treaties. Evan Connell notes in this rambling history of the Battle of Little Bighorn that much of the public viewed him as a homegrown Siegfried, “a warrior of matchless strength and purity,” for decades after a band of Sioux and Cheyenne and others killed all of his men in perhaps as little as 20 or 30 minutes on June 25, 1876.

Son of the Morning Star lends plausibility to both views of one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Connell’s overconfident Custer led a reckless Seventh Cavalry charge against a vastly larger number of warriors who saw gold miners streaming onto land promised to them by the U.S. government. But his book describes enough of the Indian atrocities that preceded the attack, including the murder and scalping of children, to show why any 19th-century American might have seen the young lieutenant colonel as a noble martyr.

Connell tells Custer’s story with a slack hand absent from Mrs. Bridge, the taut masterpiece that made his reputation. A poem that Walt Whitman wrote right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he says, is “not very good”: “If he had waited, as poets are supposed to do, recollecting in tranquility, he might have done better. Then again, it could have been worse.” Son of the Morning Star has a fair amount of such blather. But Connell has a novelist’s eye for suggestive detail that adds layers of interest to the accounts of the battle typically found in history books. He writes that the impulsive Custer had obsessions that included “washing his hands again and again” while serving in the Army during the Civil War. And although his book doesn’t raise it directly, the question lingers: Did America’s Charge of the Light Brigade result in part from what would today be called an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Best line: No. 1: “Just as each tribe marked its arrows in a distinctive way, so each had a particular style of scalping: diamond-shaped, triangular, square, oval. Sgt. [John] Ryan observed in his memoirs that when the scalped body of a trooper was found the Indian scouts knew immediately which tribe was responsible.” No. 2: “Abdominal wounds usually were fatal, whether or not the blade [of an arrow] could be withdrawn. This fact being known to Indians, they frequently aimed at a soldier’s bellybutton, and it is said that experienced frontiersmen sometimes would wrap a blanket around their middle in hopes of stopping the point or at least diminishing the impact.”

Worst line: No. 1: “In addition to written orders, he seems to have been told verbally to dump the stove.” No. 2: The lines about Whitman quoted in the review above.

Published: 1997

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

June 6, 2013

The Bagpipes of D-Day – ‘Highland Laddie’ at Sword Beach

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:27 pm
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Like great novelists, great war correspondents know that people make the story. One who never forgot it was Cornelius Ryan, the Dublin-born reporter and author of the classic account of the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster, 1959).

Ryan’s book is less about military tactics and strategy than about their effect on people — from the German high command to a French schoolmistress and the American paratrooper who tumbled into her garden just after midnight on June 6, 1944. One of the most remarkable characters in The Longest Day is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, the Scottish brigade commander who, with his bagpiper and fellow commandos, went ashore Sword Beach. This paragraph from the book describes the scene:

“As the commandos touched down on Sword, Lord Lovat’s piper, William Millin, plunged off his landing craft into water up to his armpits. He could see smoke piling up from the beach ahead and hear the crump of exploding mortar shells. As Millin floundered toward shore, Lovat shouted at him, ‘Give us “Highland Laddie,” man!’ Waist-deep in water, Millin put his mouthpiece to his lips and splashed through the surf, the pipes keening crazily. At the water’s edge, oblivious to the gunfire, he halted and, parading up and down the beach, piped the commandos ashore. The men streamed past him, and mingling with the whine of bullets and the screams of shells came the wild skirl of the pipes as Millin now played, ‘The Road to the Isles.’ ‘That’s the stuff, Jock,’ yelled a commando. Said another, ‘Get down, you mad bugger.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 8, 2013

A Theater Critic Celebrates the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:14 pm
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“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!

The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”

In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story – and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”

Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare  virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.

Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”

Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.

Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Leon is a columnist for Playbill who has written theater criticism for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 22, 2013

‘Being Dead Is No Excuse’: An Irreverent Guide to Southern Funerals

Filed under: How to,Humor,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased.  And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)

More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that  transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”

Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”

Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?

Published: 2005

Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).

Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

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