One-Minute Book Reviews

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 10, 2012

‘We Band of Angels’: The True Story of Nurses Who Became Prisoners of War

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
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A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy

We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.

Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”

Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”

Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.

Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.

About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York UniversityWe Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.

Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.

Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.

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

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

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:59 am
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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 12, 2011

Part 2 – Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists — The Nonfiction Shortlist

Filed under: National Book Awards,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:45 am
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This is the second in a series of posts that try to predict the winners of National Book Awards on the basis on online excerpts of the finalists. 

By Janice Harayda

How much do excerpts tell you about a book? A lot. But excerpts from nonfiction books are harder to judge than chapters from novels, partly because they may not show errors that undermine the whole. And the strength of the writing in work of nonfiction may differ from the quality or importance of the research. Who should win a literary prize: the author of a beautifully written book on a minor subject or a cliché-strewn one that breaks ground on a major topic?

Such variables suggest why predicting the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction on the basis of excerpts is tougher than ranking the fiction candidates as I did on Nov. 2. One book shortlisted for the prize to be given on Nov. 16  looks like a nonstarter: Mary Gabriel tells the worthy story of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx in her dual biography, Love and Capital, but her writing doesn’t rise above the level good wire-service copy in five online excerpts.

Two other finalists have more serious problems. Deborah Baker rewrote letters that she quotes in The Convert — a book she calls “fundamentally a work of nonfiction” — and the liberties she took should have led to a disqualification by the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation. Judges also shoehorned in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, a graphic-format biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which has art far superior to its text. The National Book Awards are based on the premise that authors should judge authors. If that’s true, artists should judge artists. And if the National Book Foundation wants to honor graphic  books, it should create a category for them. As it is, a victory for Redniss would turn the nonfiction prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

All of this leaves two finalists worthy of the award: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which shows how a poem written in 50 B.C. anticipated 20th-century thought, and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, a biography of the slain activist. Greenblatt writes more elegantly, but Manning’s book may be more important. American literature has needed for decades a biography that gives a more balanced portrait of Malcolm X than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work influenced by ghostwriter Alex Haley’s view of his subject, and Manning has written it. It’s harder to argue that the country needed Greenblatt’s exploration of De rerum natura, however admirable. So if excerpts are a barometer,  the contest for 2011 nonfiction prize looks like a two-way race between The Swerve and Malcolm X, with Manning’s book more likely to win.

More comments on the five finalists appear in the following slightly altered versions of Nov. 11 tweets. Each item below is a micro-review of one or more excerpts of a shortlisted book, supplemented in two cases by further reading.

Love and Capital Good story of Karl and Jenny Marx, wire-service writing. Grade: B Based on this excerpt and others.

The Swerve The most elegant finalist shakes the dust off Lucretius. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Radioactive Art far better than the text. Graphic books need their own NBA category. No grade. Based on the entire book.

Malcolm X Slow-moving but much needed antidote to Alex Haley. Grade: B+ Based
on this excerpt and and two more chapters.

The Convert A “fundamentally” nonfiction book that belongs on Oprah, not the NBA shortlist. Grade: F for judges. Based on 100+ pages of the book.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she will post other comments on the awards before and after the Nov. 16 ceremony. Jan has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2011

‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – The True Story of the Last Comanche Chief, His White Mother and the Texans Who Hunted for Them

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:46 am
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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

No Indians of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches. Nomadic warriors who liked to attack under a full moon, they inspired terror with their horned buffalo-wool caps and their ability to fire arrows while clinging to the sides of horses. They gang-raped women, speared babies with lances, and tortured male captives, sometimes by burning them to death. After a massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.”

In this worthy finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, S.C. Gwynne denies neither these atrocities nor the many betrayals by whites that helped to foster the warriors’ thirst for vengeance. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, he tells the story of the fall of the Comanches through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his 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. Of those three lives, only Quanah’s did not end in tragedy, and Empire of the Summer Moon shows the cost of the American ideal of Manifest Destiny both to those who pursued it and to those who obstructed it. Few stereotypes of Indians have proved more tenacious than that of the “noble savage,” but Gwynne shows that among native tribes as among whites, extraordinary courage often went hand-in-hand with comparable ignobility.

Best line: One passage describes what Comanches did after they gang-raped and shot several arrows into Martha Sherman, a white settler who was nine months pregnant: “They scalped her alive by making deep cuts below her ears and, in effect, peeling the top of her head entirely off.”

Worst line: In a rare descent into sentimentality and cliché, Gwynne writes of Cynthia Ann after whites recaptured her: “And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”

Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover), May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Read an excerpt from Empire of the Summer Moon.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on this site on Oct. 3, 2011.

Furthermore: Empire of the Summer Moon was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Cynthia Ann Parker’s capture provided part of the inspiration for in the movie The Searchers.

You may also want to read: The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America 

You can follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the follow button in the right sidebar. Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Filed under: Nonfiction,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 am
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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

By S.C. Gwynne
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

No Indian tribe of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches, who terrified generations of frontier settlers with their moonlit attacks and ability to fire a fusillade of arrows while hanging off the sides of their horses. Empire of the Summer Moon tells the true story of their fall through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his 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. S.C. Gwynne was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for the book, which the judges called “a memorable examination of the longest and most brutal of all the wars between European settlers and a single Indian tribe.”

10 Discussion Questions for Empire of the Summer Moon:

1. Most Americans know the names of few women who lived on the frontier except perhaps for Laura Ingalls Wilder. What did you learn about those women from reading about Cynthia Ann Parker and her contemporaries?

2. A Comanche male was “gloriously, astoundingly free,” but a Comanche woman was “a second-class citizen,” S.C. Gwynne says. [Page 52] Do you agree?

3. Gwynne says it’s hard to avoid making “moral judgments about the Comanches” when you read the memoir of Rachel Parker Plummer, who was captured along with her cousin Cynthia Ann but soon separated from her. [Page 43] Rachel’s story involves gang rape, the torture and murder of her 7-week-old baby, and other horrific acts. What moral judgments, if any, did you make about the Comanches?

4. The stereotype of the “noble savage” has existed since the time of James Fennimore Cooper, and stereotypes may contain a germ of truth. [Page 51] Was there anything noble about the Comanches?

5. Gen. George Armstrong Custer became world-famous after his defeat by several tribes at Little Big Horn, and Ranald Mackenzie became obscure after his victory over the Comanches. [Page 2] Why do you think the two generals had different fates?

6. The U.S. government failed to end Comanche raids sooner partly because many Easterners believed that “the Indian wars were principally the fault of white men” and that “the Comanches and other troublesome tribes would live in peace if only they were treated properly.” [Page 223] Gwynne says they were wrong: No one who knew about the horrors of Comanche attacks “could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless.” [Page 224] Did he persuade you of that?

7. Gwynne also argues that the U.S. “had betrayed and lied to Native American tribes more times than anyone could possibly count” [Page 230] and that the Office of Indian affairs was “one of the most corrupt, venal, and incompetent government agencies in American history.” [Page 230] To what degree, if at all, were Comanche attacks justified by how the government treated them?

8. Empire of the Summer Moon cuts back and forth between the stories of its major figures (Cynthia Parker and others captured in the 1836 raid on her family’s fort; her son, Quanah, and her husband, Peta Nocona; the Indian fighter Ranald Mackenzie; and others). How well does the cross-cutting work? Could follow the threads of the story easily or did you sometimes have to reread parts of the book?

9. Especially after the Civil War, the extreme violence of the Comanche attacks “amounted to what we would today consider to be political terrorism,” Gwynne says. Is it fair to compare the tribe to today’s terrorists?

10. Empire of the Summer Moon gives many example of Comanche brutality. The first pages of the book note, for example, after the Salt Creek Massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.” [Page 4] Did Gwynne ever go too far or describe violence that seemed unnecessary to the story? Why or why not?

The page numbers cited above refer to the hardcover edition of Empire of the Summer Moon.  A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 3, 2011.

Vital statistics:

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50. Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover) and May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Noteworthy reviews of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared in the Economist and elsewhere.

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 22, 2011

Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-la,’ a World War II Rescue Story

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:03 am
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Mitchell Zuckoff resurrects a little-known episode in American military history in his new Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, which describes an attempt by the Army to extract the stranded survivors of a plane crash in New Guinea.  My review of the book ran this week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. These lines from Lost in Shangri-la don’t appear in the review but suggest the lively details gathered by Zuckoff: “In New Guinea as elsewhere, Margaret Hastings and other WACs filled strictly noncombat roles, as expressed by their slogan, ‘Free a Man to Fight.’ An earlier motto, ‘Release a Man for Combat,’ was scratched because it fed suspicions among the WACs’ detractors that their secret purpose was to provide sexual release for soldiers in the field.” 

May 1, 2011

When Is Humanitarian Aid Inhumane? ‘The Crisis Caravan’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:04 pm
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The abuses of international aid go beyond the Three Cups of Tea scandal

The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? By Linda Polman. Translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters. Metropolitan/Holt, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Shock and outrage greeted the recent claims that Greg Mortenson made up or embellished stories he told in Three Cups of Tea about building schools for girls in Afghanistan. The Crisis Caravan makes clear that such rogue idealists – or outright charlatans – find the conditions they need to thrive in a humanitarian-aid industry that operates largely without oversight even if its actions prolong genocide or civil wars.

Linda Polman doesn’t mention Mortenson in this indictment of the abuses of aid but focuses on titans such as CARE, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. All of those groups showed up when the Hutu perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda fled to refugee camps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and their aid workers stayed when Hutu leaders levied “taxes” on the distributed food rations so they could pay they soldiers to slip back over the border and kill more Tutsi. During the civil war in Sudan, the army took food intended for the victims, which helped to enable it to keep fighting instead of seeking ways to end the bloodshed. Humanitarian groups reportedly gave one-third of their food and agricultural supplies to the Taliban in one region of Afghanistan and paid warlords an “entrance fee” of up to 80 percent of the value of donations for Somalia.

Similar examples of ethically perverse practices have been well documented in books such as Michael Maren’s The Road to Hell. But Polman writes with an unusual vigor, clarity and moral urgency that result in part from 15 years of living in and reporting from war zones. She makes perhaps the strongest case yet that journalists abet the abuses by accepting free trips and other favors from aid groups and by exempting them from the close scrutiny they give to other businesses.

Polman’s greatest contribution is to show why the question “Should we just do nothing?” is too simplistic when television screens show starving children, tsunami victims or war refugees. All parties who support humanitarian organizations — the United Nations, the U.S. and other nations and private donors — have options besides withholding money or allowing groups to turn it over to tyrants. Those alternatives include insisting that aid organizations to work together in troubled countries, which would help them resist local corruption, instead of continually fighting for contracts that promote their own survival. The U.N. and others also need to hold aid organizations accountable for violations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, which require each group “to ensure that it is in full control of its resources, including supervision and distribution of relief items.”

“As far as I’m aware, no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes,” Polman writes. She wrote those words before the Montana attorney general began investigating Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and may make them obsolete. But she is right to ask: When humanitarians become “involuntary collaborators” with oppressors, should they remain above the law because some of their actions relieve great suffering?

Philip Gourevitch, author of the acclaimed book about the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Families, made a similar point in a review of The Crisis Caravan in The New Yorker.

“Aid organizations and their workers are entirely self-policing, which means that when it comes to the political consequences of their actions they are simply not policed,” Gourevitch wrote. “When a mission ends in catastrophe, they write their own evaluations. And if there are investigations of the crimes that follow on their aid, the humanitarians get airbrushed out of the story.” He added, in a comment abundantly supported by The Crisis Caravan: “There can be no proper accounting of such a history as long as humanitarians continue to enjoy total impunity.”

The Crisis Caravan doesn’t deal with ratings services such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator that guide many Americans in their decisions about charitable giving but leaves the strong impression such gatekeepers often give people a false sense of security about how aid groups use their money. An implicit message of this important book is: Relying on even the best ratings service may resemble installing smoke detectors in every room of a burning house.

Best line: “As far as I’m aware, no aid worker or aid organization has ever been dragged before the courts for failures or mistakes, let alone complicity in crimes committed by rebels and regimes.”

Worst line: “ … Chevalier snarled” and “He growled,” characterizations of the speech of an aid worker and an African president, respectively.

Recommendation? Highly recommended. The Crisis Caravan deals with the inappropriate aid given by some American religious groups and would be an excellent choice for many book clubs sponsored by churches and synagogues.

Published: September 2010 (first U.S. edition)

Furthermore: An excellent interview withPolman (www.twitter.com/linda_polman) appeared in the Observer when The Crisis Caravan was published in England under the title War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. Read a transcript of a Sixty Minutes report on Mortenson.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Polman is an award-winning Dutch journalist who wrote We Did Nothing, a book about the failures of U.N. peacekeeping missions. An excerpt from and praise for The Crisis Caravan appear on the site for her publisher. Jon Stewart interviews Polman about the book on The Daily Show.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter (www.twitter.com/janiceharayda) or Quora (www.quora.com/Janice-Harayda). Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. She does not accept free books, galleys or other promotional materials from publishers.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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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