One-Minute Book Reviews

March 28, 2007

Anne Porter: An Easter Lily in the Field of Late-Blooming Poets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Poetry,Reading,Religion,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm

In her mid-90s an acclaimed poet returns with her first book since her National Book Award finalist, An Altogether Different Language

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. Steerforth/Zoland, 176 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, a fascinating article about Anne Porter appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline, “A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise.” The story noted that Porter was 83 when her first collection, An Altogether Different Language, was published in 1994. The book was a finalist for a National Book Award for poetry and followed by Living Things in 2006.

The Journal article included excerpts from Porter’s poems that were so good that I began looking for Living Things – online, at libraries and bookstores in Manhattan and the suburbs. Nobody had it, or could get it. It seemed that – whether because of the Journal article or Porter’s growing literary reputation – the book had sold out everywhere.

Just before Lent, Living Things turned up again. And the timing couldn’t have been more apt for the return of this fine collection, which has all the poems from An Altogether Different Language and 39 new ones. Living Things makes clear that Porter is an Easter lily in the field of late-blooming poets. She is a Catholic poet in the same way that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist: She describes a world that is, as O’Connor put it, founded on “the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic – the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment.” But she transcends the label “Catholic writer.” As the poet David Shapiro has said, Porter transmits “her Franciscan joy in created things” and “reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.” At the same time, her poems spring from everyday life, particularly her role as the mother of five children by her late husband, the artist Fairfield Porter.

Many of her rhymed and unrhymed poems are meditations on saints, holy days or Bible verses. Others are hymns or prayers, steeped in a sense of wonder and gratitude reminiscent of that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” One of the most memorable poems is “A Short Prayer,” an interpretation – you might even call it a brief modern translation – of the “Hail Mary.” In “An Easter Lily” Porter considers the gift of a lily

Whose whiteness
Is past belief

Its blossoms
The shape of trumpets
Are mute as swans

But deep and strong as sweat
Is their feral perfume.

In seven short iambic lines, Porter links the Easter lily to glory (“trumpets”), martyrdom (“swans”), and purity (the whiteness of the lily and swans). And she does more. The best-known Bible verse about lilies, Matthew 6:28, says they “toil not” – they don’t sweat. Porter’s similie – “strong as sweat” – encourages you to consider the strength of the lily as well as its grace. It also connects flower implicitly to the sweat of Christ carrying the cross. Could anyone look at a lily the same way after reading this poem?

Perhaps the most poignant poem in Living Things is the loving reminiscence, “For My Son Johnny.” Porter told the Wall Street Journal that she believes her late son suffered from either schizophrenia or autism. In the poem she recalls, among other things, his kindness:

Though your shoelaces were hardly ever tied
And you seldom wore matching socks
You tried to behave with dignity in the village
“So as not to embarrass my little sisters.”

Porter’s natural tone and diction, here and elsewhere, are part of the charm of her book. The work of religious poets can imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the language of Scripture or the great metaphysicists. Porter has a voice all her own. How lovely that, however belatedly, people are discovering it.

Best line: At this time of year, many people may especially appreciate the poems that relate to Easter, which include “In Holy Week,” “Cradle Song II” and “Four Seasons Carol.” Anyone who looks for strong rhymes may also enjoy “House Lots,” a meditation on the arrival of bulldozers: “Good-bye sweet whistling quail/ Milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace/ Good-bye shy cottomtail/ Quit your secret room …”

Worst line: None.

Published: January 2006

Furthermore: The back cover of this book has an evocative portrait of the author by her husband. Search Google for “Video: Portrait of Anne Porter” to watch a short video of Porter reading from and talking about her poetry. The Wall Street Journal article by Lucette Lagnado ran on Nov. 11–12, 2006.

Consider reading also: Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, 2006), by Robert Cording, Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at Holy Cross. The poems in this book reflect a religious perspective and include the four-page “Lenten Stanzas” and the briefer “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist has been the book editor of the Plain Dearler and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2007

Robin McGraw’s Faith in Herself

Dr. Phil’s wife writes about her $50,000 Mercedes, her crystal chandeliers, and those tabloid rumors

[Note: I picked up Inside My Heart along with Love Smart, reviewed on this site on Feb. 8, planning to do a dual review. The books were so different I decided to do this one separately.]

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live With Passion and Purpose. By Robin McGraw. Nelson, 223 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Robin McGraw devotes four pages of Inside My Heart to a vasectomy reversal that her husband had without telling her – an incident that included, as she puts it, “fabricating” a cover story for his whereabouts during the surgery. This is by far the most revealing anecdote in her memoir of her marriage to Dr. Phil McGraw. What would her husband say if a man on his talk show confessed to doing the same thing?

McGraw says that she wrote Inside My Heart to get female readers excited about becoming “the woman that God created you to be,” a process that involves learning to stand up for themselves as she says she has done. Presumably to help them get “excited,” she writes about her $50,000 Mercedes, her “Italian Renaissance style” home with its “mosaic floors and crystal chandeliers” and her “black suede bomber jacket” that her husband gave her for Christmas. She says little about her day-to-day spiritual practices and struggles beyond that she gives thanks each morning for how “God has blessed” her.

Although Inside My Heart comes from a publisher of Christian books, God comes across in it as a generic figure with a goody bag that always has something for McGraw. So it’s hard to say who the target audience is. Inside My Heart may offend evangelicals with its glib materialism and lack of references to Jesus and the Bible. But it’s so shallow it has little to offer others, including people who enjoy good celebrity memoirs. Perhaps it’s is aimed partly at all those tabloid readers who wonder if there’s truth to the rumors that its author has been so lonely in Los Angeles, she went door-to-door trying to find someone to play bunco with her? If so, let the record show that McGraw says the stories about the dice game are false. “I had never even heard of it,” she says, “let alone played it.”

Best line: McGraw was startled when she first learned of her husband’s vasectomy reversal: “And then I took a good look at him and saw that he had a bulge under his trousers from a bandage and icepack.”

Worst line: At times McGraw slips into her husband’s nasty, hectoring tone. An example occurs when she urges people to have colonoscopies: “If you’re over fifty and haven’t had one done because you’re too squeamish to deal with it, stop acting like a baby and go have one.”

Consider reading instead: Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd, by Sue Monk Kidd. A review is archived in the “Essays and Reviews” category on this site.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2007

Good Passover Books for Children Ages 4–12

A picture book and an anthology explain the meaning of Seder and other aspects of the holiday

Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Bob Dacey. Scholastic, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up.

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion. Written and Compiled by Eric A. Kimmel. Scholastic, 144 pp., $18.95. Publisher’s suggested ages: 4–8. School Library Journal suggested ages: 9–12. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Last week I reviewed Easter books for children, and because I don’t know Passover books as well, I’ve deferred to Higher Authorities in selecting today’s titles: a children’s librarian, who recommended both, and the Jewish Book Council, which gave a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Books to Wonders and Miracles. Both books cover some of the same material, including the story of Moses and his sister, Miriam, and explain why some people now place a Miriam’s Cup next to the Elijah’s Cup at the Seder, the Passover meal. But there are big differences.

Miriam’s Cup is a picture book that refracts the Passover story through the eyes of a modern family preparing for the holiday. Before guests arrive for the Seder, Mama Pinsky tells her daughter, Miriam, about the “the prophet you are named for.” Mama’s account focuses on the biblical heroine’s role in events more often associated with her brother Moses — his discovery in the bulrushes, his flight from Egypt, the plagues of frogs and other afflictions, and the parting of the Red Sea.

The text of Miriam’s Cup is at times stilted. The Pinskys are modern enough to have a Miriam’s Cup at their Seder, but Miriam Pinsky calls her parents “Mama” and “Papa” as though living in the early 20th century. And although Fran Manushkin never says so directly, her book has a feminist slant. (Anybody who doesn’t recall seeing Miriam on the list of prophets in that Bible-as-literature class in college may want to read the entry about her that you can find if you go to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org and search for “Miriam.”) But Bob Dacey’s bold watercolors draw you in quickly and help to offset the effect of the anachronisms, and the cover offers a bonus in the form of the words and music to Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” based on Exodus 15:20–21.

Wonders and Miracles is, in effect, a children’s coffee-table book – an exquisite collection of poems, stories, prayers, recipes, and more – that befits the high reputation of Eric A. Kimmel, who won a Caldecott Honor for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. His Passover anthology doen’t include a complete Haggadah, the collection of readings used at the Passover meal. Instead Kimmel walks children through each part of the Seder, explaining why it matters with the help of beautiful illustrations spanning three centuries – from an Egyptian tomb painting to contemporary photographs of three versions of a Miriam’s Cup (silver, glass, and clay).

If the publisher and School Library Journal disagree on the ages for this book, it’s because Wonders and Miracles has something for all. J. Patrick Lewis’s simple rhyming poem “Spirit of the Seder” would suit preschoolers. Gershon Levine’s story “And You Shall Teach Your Children” makes a good introduction for adolescents to the Soviet Jews known as “refusniks” who lost their jobs or were investigated by the secret police if they tried to practice Judaism or move to Israel. And adults might appreciate the recipes for almond macaroons (“a lovely change from the traditional coconut macaroons”) or both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic charoset.

For all its virtues, this book has such an unexpected dust jacket I might have missed it if a children’s librarian hadn’t put it in my hands when I asked for “the best Passover books.” The cover comes from the gifted Bagram Ibatoulline (creator of the crucified rabbit for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Ibatoulline shows Moses and Aaron in red tunics that make them look like – there’s no getting around this – Santa Claus, with seraphim and cherubim above and below them. An editorial note traces the cover influences to the Amsterdam Haggadah “illustrated by a Jewish convert who copied his illustrations from a Christian source.” And while the winged angels might confuse some children about Jewish beliefs, in a sense the cover brilliantly reflects the spirit of this book. On his first page, Kimmel tells us that Passover is ancient and modern, solemn and joyous, and timeless and ever-changing. It is, in other words, “a holiday filled with contractions.”

Recommended ages: The publisher recommends Wonders and Miracles for ages 4–8 while School Library Journal suggests 9–12. Both are right. But very young children might destroy this book while some 11- and 12-year-olds might be too old for some of it. I would probably give it to 6-to-9-year-olds or as a “family” gift.

Published: March 2006 and Feb. 1998 (paperback and hardcover editions of Miriam’s Cup) and Feb. 2004 (Wonders and Miracles, hardcover only available).

Links: www.ericakimmel.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 17, 2007

The Best Versions of the Easter Story for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Picture books that use the King James Version to tell the Easter story

[The following review has been expanded since the original post. The added material appears in square brackets like those of this note. It includes an Easter book for ages 1-to-3 with African-American characters. I have also added comments on Elizabeth Winthrop’s He Is Risen in the “Furthermore” section at the end. The review below deals only with books that explain the religious meaning of Easter to children. You can also find good, brief versions of the Easter story that are suitable for young children in many general Bible story books that have stories from both the Old and New Testaments. You may also want to read the April 1, 2007, post on this site about books about rabbits (“Who Framed Peter Rabbit?”) often given as Easter gifts www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/01/.}

Easter: The King James Version – With Pictures. By Jan Pienkowski. Knopf, standard edition, varied prices. Ages 8 and up. Easter – Mini Edition. By Jan Pienkowski, Knopf mini edition, varied prices. Ages 4–8. [See further discussion of ages below.]

Easter. By Fiona French, editor. HarperCollins edition [Excerpts from King James Version], 32 pp., $16.95. Ages 8 and up [ages for 4 and up for reading aloud]. Ignatius Press edition of the same book [Excerpts from Revised Standard Version], 32 pp., $16.95. [Ages 8 and up, ages 4 and up for reading aloud.]

[Easter. By Miriam Nerlove. Whitman, 24 pp., $4.95, paperback. Ages 1 to 3.]

By Janice Harayda
How could perhaps the best picture book version of the Easter story have gone of print? Back in 1989, the Polish-born artist Jan Pienkowski won raves for his Easter, a Passion narrative told through excerpts from the King James Version and haunting silhouettes set against a field of vibrant color and symbols of rebirth. A reviewer for School Library Journal wrote:

“Dazzling beauty and poignant emotion suffuse these illustrations, which give an intensely personal interpretation of the King James version of the Easter gospels … Jesus’s slender, often hunched figure aches with human suffering.”

Pienkowski’s use of black silhouettes gave his pictures an advantage over the bloodier images of some other artists: They had a drama appropriate to the story but lacked the elements that could frighten children. They were also were among the best work of an illustrator who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Haunted House and The Kingdom Under the Sea. And while it’s disheartening that both editions of Easter have gone out of print. Pienkowski is popular enough that many libraries have his books. If yours doesn’t have this one, you may be able to find it through an online bookseller or eBay.

You may also want to look for Fiona French’s Easter, shown at right, a 2002 picture book that remains in print. I haven’t seen it, but School Library Journal said: “Spectacular spreads inspired by the stained-glass windows of English cathedrals are the focal point of this abbreviated version of Jesus’s last days. Swirling scenes in incandescent jewel tones and bold black lines illustrate excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible, which are selected highlights rather than a continuous narrative.” [I’ve seen this book since the original post and agree with School Library Journal. This beautiful book is by far the best version of the Easter story for preschoolers and young school-age children that is widely available in stores and online. But the Ignatius Press edition uses excerpts from the Revised Standard Version instead of the KJV excerpts found in the earlier edition published by HarperCollins. The language of the RSV is more contemporary than that of the KJV, so it may be easier for some children to understand. And because the RSV is the the version used in most Protestant churches in the U.S., the language may also be more familiar to many children.)

Though less well-known than many American authors, French is one of England’s finest picture-book artists. She won the Kate Greenaway award for her Snow White in New York among many other honors.

[Miriam Nerlove’s Easter differs in several ways from the books of Pienkowski and French. Hers is a book for toddlers and younger preschoolers, not the older preschoolers and young school-age children for whom the other books are intended. It does not focus tightly on the last days and Resurrection of Jesus, events mentioned on only four of its 24 pages. Instead it shows a modern black family dyeing eggs, spotting a bunny, going to church, and enjoying a holiday dinner. And unlike the other two authors, Nerlove tells her story through simple — and at times strained — rhymes and muted watercolors that lack the depth the art in the other books. So her Easter is likely to appeal most to families who are more interested in encouraging very young children get excited about fun aspects of the holiday, such as the arrival of “the Easter bunny,” than in teaching them about its religious significance.]

The usual warning applies to all these books: Seasonal books may sell out before a holiday. Look into this one now want to your child to read about something other than jolly bunnies this Easter.

Age ranges. The publishers recommend the HarperCollins edition of French’s book and the Pienkowski standard edition for about ages 8 and up because of their King James texts. But because these are picture books, they may not appeal to strong chapter-book readers. Unless I knew a child’s reading level well, I might get them for ages 4–7 and help them with the text or let them grow into them. Nerlove’s book is book is for younger children, such as those who enjoy Goodnight Moon.

[Furthermore: Elizabeth Winthrop has written another KJV-based Easter story, He Is Risen: The Easter Story (Holiday House, $17.95), illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak. This book has much more text on each page than the other books in this review and illustrations that, although of high quality, are graphic. (The Easter lily on the cover is somewhat misleading about what’s inside.) The scenes of Jesus’s crucifixion may be the bloodiest in any picture book version of the Easter story. On one two-page spread, Jesus sprawls on the ground in a loincloth in obvious pain or sorrow with blood flowing from a nail the size of a railrod spike through his wrist. The crucifixion scene on the spread that follows it is no less dramatic. The illustrations on these pages are perhaps more realistic and historically accurate than those in other books. But they are so chilling and the text is so dense, this book would not suit most preschoolers and many young school-age children. He Is Risen is best for ages 9 and up, particularly those who have an understanding of what “crucifixion” means. The problem is that because this book has a picture book format, it may not appeal to 9-year-olds who prefer chapter books. So the audience is hard to define, which is why it doesn’t appear on the “best books” list.]

Links: Jan Pienkowski’s http://www.janpienkowski.com/
has information about other books but not Easter. Go to www.ignatius.com and search for “Fiona French” for more on her Easter. The Ignatius site also has information on the sequel to Easter, Bethlehem, which tells the Christmas story partly through excerpts from the Revised Standard Version and art inspired by stained glass windows in English cathedrals. To learn about Miriam Nerlove’s Easter, go to www.awhitmanco.com and click on “Holiday Books,” then search for “Easter.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A new review of one or more books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews. This site does not acept free books from publishers or others, and all reviews are independent evaluations by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven’t read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz’s work? Jan]

Links: www.candlewick.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 21, 2007

What Do the Ashes on Ash Wednesday Mean? Three Answers From a New Book

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am

Marc Foley on the meaning of ashes …

“The ashes placed upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday do not have a single meaning. They can symbolize our mortality (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”) or our need for conversion (“Repent, and believe in the gospel”). The ashes may also represent illusionary dreams that have come to nothing, for they are derived from the palms that we carry in procession on Palm Sunday.”

Marc Foley in the new A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent (New City Press, $12.95, paperback), reviewed in the post directly below this one on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Meditations for Lent Inspired by God, Dante, Woody Allen and Others

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am

An unusually thoughtful and literate book of meditations for the season

A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent. By Marc Foley. New City Press, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You might think of this thoughtful guide as “the serious reader’s book of meditations for Lent.” A Season of Rebirth follows the traditional format of small paperbacks that offer daily meditations for Lent: Each entry begins by citing a Bible verse for the day in a year in the three-year rotation of readings used in Christian churches (known as Lectionary Cycles A, B, and C).

What sets this book apart is that Marc Foley takes as a springboard for his reflections an exceptionally wide range of literary and other references, including many books, plays, and poems. In different entries he comments intelligently on Dante, Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Robert Coles, R.D. Laing, William Blake, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and others, with all sources identified in end notes. This breadth of erudition makes A Season of Rebirth valuable not just for its Lenten meditations but as a guide to further reading in any season.

Best line: Foley is particularly good at explaining difficult verses such as Matthew 5:43–48 (“You must be perfect …”), sometimes taken to mean that people should strive for an unrealistic – and even neurotic – perfection. He writes: “Jesus is not telling us that we have to measure up to God; rather, we are called to be like God in a particular way – our charity should be indiscriminate. Our charity should be like the sun, which rises on the good and bad alike or the rain that falls upon the just and unjust.”

Worst line: None. Not everyone will agree with Foley’s views on Allan Bloom and some of his other sources, but he makes his points even-handedly.

Consider reading also: Living Things: Collected Poems (Zoland, 2006), by Anne Porter, with a foreword by David Shapiro, back in stores after having been hard to get for a while. In his introduction, Shapiro suggests that Porter is “perhaps the greatest living Catholic or religious poet.” And while many people would argue that the distinction belongs to the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, this is unquestionably one of the best recent volumes in which many poems deal with topics or themes that are especially appropriate during Lent. Living Things includes both new work and all the poems collected in An Altogether Different Language, a finalist for the National Book Award. Among the poems in the book: “An Easter Lily,” “In Holy Week,” and “After Psalm 137″ (first published in Commonweal).

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the final book may differ slightly.

Published: January 2007

Links: www.newcitypress.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 24, 2007

Sue Monk Kidd’s Essays on God

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:14 pm

Chicken soup for the soul of fans of The Secret Life of Bees

Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd. By Sue Monk Kidd. GuidepostsBooks, 227 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Inspirational” is often a publishing industry code for “wacko.” In the spirituality section of your local bookstore, you may find books about UFOs, magic mushrooms, sacred-conspiracy theories — almost anything except traditional religious beliefs. The writing in some of these books doesn’t “inspire” anything except a trip to the paper-shredder.

Firstlight is a lovely exception. Novelist Sue Monk Kid began her literary career by writing personal essays and vignettes for Guideposts, an interfaith magazine with a Christian focus. And she has collected some of those pieces and others in a book divided into sections on topics such as solitude, compassion, and finding the sacred in the ordinary.

Guideposts magazine offers what you might call “Christianity lite” – no heavy theological discourse — and that’s what you get here. Many of the entries in Firstlight are short enough that they could have appeared in books in the popular “Chicken Soup” series. Some have a tidied-up air – they aren’t as messy as life – or deliver a clichéd moral such as, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” or “God doesn’t always answer prayers as we expect.”

But Firstlight still has much offer to groups that include book clubs that have selected its author’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. In some of her best essays, Kidd writes about her decision to give up nursing and become a writer after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain at the age of 29. In others she writes about a struggle with perfectionism that once reduced her to taking “blue tranquilizers to get through the day.” And even atheists in book clubs may be moved by her poignant stories of her grandmother, who died at the age of 98. Kidd writes that on the day her grandmother died, her mother found a piece of paper beside her bed that said: “May I wake ready for that daily, yet greatest of all gifts – a fresh start.”

Best line: Kidd writes about visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky: “Even though I yearn for this acre of solitude, some other part of me hungers for the larger world of ‘relevance,’ as if my solitude were a rarefied form of loitering.”

Worst line: At times, Kidd stops just short of talking about her “inner child.” She writes about “the inner divine,” “the inner Beloved,” and “the inner story” that each of us knows.

Recommended if … you’re looking for background on Kidd or intelligent but easy-to-read meditations on Christianity. Firstlight could make a good Lenten study text for church women’s groups after it comes out in paperback (though the publisher doesn’t say when this might occur).

Published: October 2006.

Links: www.suemonkkidd.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2006

Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: A Guide to Raising Children With Good Character

A wise and compassionate guide to raising children who have good character, not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. Penguin/Compass, 300 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Are you a Jewish parent trying to solve the “December dilemma,” which Wendy Mogel describes as “resisting the allure of Christmas without building Hanukkah up into a high-stature holiday it was never meant to be”? Are you a parent of another faith who wishes your children would express more gratitude for what they have and fewer complaints about what they don’t have this month?

If so, you can walk into almost any bookstore and find good books about how to tone down the materialism of the season. Wendy Mogel deals instead with the broader issue that often lies behind the concerns about holiday excesses: How can you raise children who have their priorities straight? In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she gives wise and compassionate answers to the question: How can you help your children develop good character and not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”?

Mogel bases her responses on Jewish teachings and her work as a psychologist and leader of workships for parents, and her advice is so refreshing that her book has won deserved acclaim not just from Jewish leaders but from secular critics and publications such as the Episcopal Schools Review. Mogel rightly argues that many parents are so eager to avoid the mistakes of their own elders that they have given away the store: “In their eagerness to do right by their children, parents not only overindulge them materially, but also spoil them emotionally.” They prize their children’s feelings so highly that they fail to instill in them an adequate sense of gratitude and of their responsibilities to others, including their parents, teachers, and community.

How can parents undo the damage? Mogel offers a step-by-step guide in which she is unafraid to use words like “should.” She is rarely less direct than she is in a comment in her section on the importance of manners: “When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should always make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. ‘I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?’ ‘Would you like some of these chips?’” And if you think you couldn’t get your children to do this, this book may change your mind.

For years Mogel has worked in the Los Angeles area and counseled some of the country’s most demanding parents and privileged children. She knows the pressures that high-octane families face and takes a good-humored and down-to-earth approach to them. (Her advice on instilling respect includes a section called “Curing Sitcom Mouth.”) Because her book has become so popular, you can also find it in most bookstores. If you’re looking for a last-minute Hanukkah present for thoughtful parents, your search has ended.

Best line: “An especially troubling aspect of modern child-rearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s achievements and feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty toward others.”

Worst line: The cover of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows a girl and boy wearing fully loaded backpacks that fall to their hips. These backpacks do not appear to meet the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight.” http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/augschool.htm The AAP suggests a rolling backback for students with a heavy load, which these two are obviously have. The photo shouldn’t necessarily be held against Mogel because authors may not have the final say in — or even be consulted about — what goes on the covers of their books.

Editor: Jane Rosenman

Recommended if … you’re looking for an antidote to parenting guides with an “anything goes” attitude toward children’s behavior.

Published: September 2001 www.wendymogel.com

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 14, 2006

Isaac Millman’s Hidden Child: An Artful Book for 7-to-9-Year-Olds

Filed under: Children's Books,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm
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The true story of a young Jewish boy who spent years hiding from the Nazis in occupied France

Hidden Child. By Isaac Millman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 73 pp., $18. Ages 7–9.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of seven, Isaac Millman escaped from Paris and went into hiding in France after his parents were arrested by the Nazis. In Hidden Child he tells his story through an artful balance of spare but vivid prose, soft-focused paintings, and black-and-white photos.

Millman neither denies nor exaggerates the dangers he faced as he writes of days full of terrors in cities and the countryside — an arrest by Nazis at bayonet-point, confinement in a prison cell with five others, abandonment on the streets of Paris by a man paid to keep him safe, a stay at a hospital used as a safe house for children of deported Jews (where he had to feign illness and use a wheelchair). But he also tells of small comforts, such a finding clusters of tiny white strawberries that helped him avoid starvation and playing with a white puppy at a shelter set up for the children of missing parents after the Liberation. His parents died in Auschwitz, and, at 15, he left France for a new life in the U.S. with a loving couple who adopted him.

Hidden Child is an oversized picture-book-with-chapters that would suit many children who are learning about the Nazis but are too young for The Diary of Anne Frank. It offers a sensitive introduction to the Holocaust for children of any faith and a potential Hanukkah gift that families will remember far longer than eight nights.

Best line: Many. One passage describes a Christmas the author spent with a kind, Catholic widow who had agreed to hide him. She had instructed him to put his shoes under the tree before going to bed: “I was too old to believe in Santa, but I couldn’t wait until morning to see what Madame Devolder had left in my shoe. It was a woolen scarf she’d knitted. And in the other, an added surprise: a beautiful orange. I had not easten one since early in the war.”

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a gentle but historically accurate book about the Holocaust that gives a child’s-eye-view of its events. This book would interest some children older than age 9 and many adults.

Editor: Frances Foster

Published: September 2005.

FYI: Amazon had this book in stock and available for overnight delivery on December 14 www.amazon.com.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

Watch for more reviews of children’s books in the Children’s Corner every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. This Saturday: Children’s books about pirates.

 

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