One-Minute Book Reviews

September 25, 2011

How Comanches Used Books as Armor: Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:52 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

In 1860 Comanches gang-raped, tortured and killed Martha Sherman, nine months pregnant and living with her husband in Parker County, Texas. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Goodnight joined a posse of Texas Rangers and Seventh Cavalry soldiers who pursued her assailants, and before doing battle with any Indians, he found a pillowcase with Sherman’s Bible in it. Why had the Comanches taken the book when they fled their victim’s cabin? S. C. Gwynne writes in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall the the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History(Scribner, 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction:

“According to Goodnight, Comanche shields, made of two layers of the toughest rawhide from the neck of a buffalo and hardened in fire, were almost invulnerable to bullets when stuffed with paper. When Comanches robbed houses, they invariably took all the books they could find.”

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon will appear soon on this site.

July 19, 2009

‘Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners’ — ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Etiquette

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

[This is a re-post of a review that appeared on Nov. 27, 2006, while I'm on a brief semi-vacation.]

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Published: October 2006

Janice Harayda wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of a manners about a bride who tries to find solace in Jane Austen as her over-the-top wedding approaches.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 1, 2009

‘We Women Were Not Made for Governing …’ — ‘We Two,’ a Biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Gillian Gill

Filed under: Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.  By Gillian Gill. Ballantine, 460 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

We Two is something you don’t see every summer: a good beach biography. It’s not so dense and scholarly that you’d have to squint at agate-type footnotes through your Ray-Bans to make sense of it. But neither is it so lightweight that you might be embarrassed to carry it onto a beach even here in New Jersey, the proud home of Boardwalk attractions such as the Shoot the Geek concession stand that lets you fire paintballs at a luckless teenager dressed like a terrorist.

This book is rather the enjoyable story of two fascinating people: Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert, her cousin and husband,  and how they helped to shape the modern world during a marriage that ended when Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42. We Two is is a love story but not just a love story, and Gillian Gill makes affairs of state as interesting as those of the heart.

Gill notes that Victoria won praise on an official visit to Paris when, from a box at the opera house, she waved to people below and then sat down again without a backward glance: “The crowd was impressed. Experts on protocol emerged to note in the French press that only a real queen never looks to see if her chair is in place.”

But Gill also gives vivid accounts of the domestic life of Victoria, who had nine children at the rate of one every two years, and the German-born Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. For all her privileges, Victoria felt so keenly the disadvantages of womanhood – and especially of child-bearing – that she wrote to her eldest daughter, “I think our sex a most unenviable one.”

Gill’s prose, to put it mildly, doesn’t always sing. She has the pedantic habit of continually starting sentences with “However” and a weakness for projecting 21st-century clichés and psychology onto 19th-century royals. Thus we read that the daughters of a king had “dysfunctional” parents and that, in the days of Victoria and Albert, “full disclosure and transparency were not to be expected from royal persons.”

But Gill excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist and serves up a banquet of memorable tales, some involving almost comically soap-operaish behavior by royals. One story involves Prince Albert’s father, a notorious rake, who one night summoned a mistress named Pauline Panam to his favorite retreat.

“After a long walk in a violent rainstorm that soaked her to the skin, Panam waited outside the house alone for hours,” Gill writes. “Finally she was obliged to climb up a ladder to the duke’s window and, when this proved too short, to scramble onto a chair he lowered for her from his bedroom.”

Best line: “Since it was strictly forbidden ever to turn one’s back upon a member of the royal family, the key skill required of women at [Victoria's] court was to walk gracefully backward, even when wearing a train and a headdress eighteen inches high.” We Two abounds details like these that make you see its era.

Worst line: “Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Cambridge graduates did their utmost to block the prince’s election [as chancellor of the university], but, happily, they failed.” But they probably weren’t too happy about how “happily” they failed.

About the headline: Queen Victoria’s comment about women and governing, as quoted by Gill, is:  “We women were not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations; but there are times which force one to take an interest in them mal gré bon gré [whether one likes it or not] and  I do of course,  intensely.”

Published: May 2009

About the author: Gill wrote Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.

Furthermore: An otherwise favorable Wall Street Journal review found several small errors of fact in the book.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 30, 2009

‘Our Poor Degraded Sex’ — Quote of the Day / Queen Victoria in ‘We Two’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:01 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Gillian Gill’s new We Two has disarmingly blunt comments on womanhood by Queen Victoria, a mother of nine who hated pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum woes. A review of Gill’s biography of Victoria and Albert will appear this week.

One memorable quote turns up in a letter from Queen Victoria to her daughter Vicky, who had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky complained that Prussian men cared only for women who beautiful and fertile. Queen Victoria sent her daughter a letter that had something of the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw:

“That despising of our poor degraded sex … is a little in all clever men’s natures; dear Papa [Prince Albert] is not quite exempt though he would not admit it – but he laughs and sneers constantly at many of them and their inevitable inconveniences, etc. Though he hates the want of affection, of due attention and protection of them, says that all men who leave all home affairs – and the education of their children – to their wives, forget their first duties.”

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

January 12, 2008

Why Was Randolph Caldecott So Great? (Quotes of the Day/Maurice Sendak)

On Monday the American Library Association will announce the winner of its highest award for a picture book, named for the great English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886). Why was Caldecott so important? Here’s an answer from Maurice Sendak, who won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are:

“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that had never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the word says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

* * *

“My favorite example of Caldecott’s fearless honesty is the final page of Hey Diddle Diddle. After we read, ‘And the Dish ran away with the spoon,’ accompanied by a drawing of the happy couple, there is the shock of turning the page and finding a picture of the dish broken into ten pieces – obviously dead – and the spoon being hustled away by her angry parents. There are no words that suggest such an end to the adventure; it is purely a Caldecottian invention. Apparently, he could not resist enlarging the dimensions of this jaunty nursery rhyme by adding a last sorrowful touch.”

Maurice Sendak in Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), a collection of Sendak’s reviews and other writing for adults. The first quote comes from his essay “Randolph Caldecott” and the second from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Sendak is one of the few great picture-book artists who is also a great critic. Caldecott & Co. has only a dozen pages of pictures but doesn’t need more, because Sendak makes you see books without them.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Scaling the Mount Everest of literature through print and audio editions

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Constance Garnett. Modern Library, 1,386 pages, $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading War and Peace is like walking into a large cocktail party at which you don’t know anybody until, hours later, Napoleon turns up fresh from his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. How do you get your bearings on a novel that has more than 500 characters and, even in the relatively compact Modern Library edition, 1,386 pages?

More than most masterpieces, War and Peace asks you to make a leap of faith and repays the effort. The characters who at first swarm at you in a mob soon coalesce into sets. Chief among them are three well-to-do families – the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs and the Bolkonskys – whose fates rise and fall in the years just before and after Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in the winter of 1812.

Leo Tolstoy sets their stories against a teeming panorama of Russian history as he develops the fatalistic theme that free will is an illusion. The choices people make reflect powerful historical forces: The higher someone’s social standing, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”

Tolstoy’s fondness for this theme involves digressions that have defeated many readers. Listening to an unabridged audio edition may help you ride out the philosophical and historical detours from the plot. A recorded version will also give you pronunciations of those 500 Russian or other names, and could add far drama to your commute than any all-news radio station. The radio may give you reports of one-alarm blazes in dumpsters. Tolstoy gives you: “The valet on going in informed the count that Moscow was on fire.”

Best line: The first, a line of dialogue at a party: “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” This isn’t nearly as famous as the first line Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike …”). But it has its own genius. Part of it is that it reates the impression that you are eavesdropping with tantalizing effects.

Worst line: Tolstoy elaborates on his view of history and free will in the second of two epilogues in the book: “Napoleon could not command a campaign against Russia, and never did command it.” Is that clear? If not, he adds: “Our false conception that the command that precedes an event is the cause of an event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and those few out of thousands of commands, which happen to be consistent with the course of events, are carried out, we forget those which were not, because they could not be carried out.”

Caveat lector: This review uses the Russian spellings in the Constance Garnett translation in the 1994 Modern Library hardcover edition www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/. Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.

Published: 1869

Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible www.audible.com.

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

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

December 18, 2007

Why Does ‘A Christmas Carol’ Work So Well As a Holiday Story? Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a sentimental novella about the redemption of a miser — could easily have turned to drivel. Why didn’t it? Here’s an answer from the novelist Jane Smiley:

A Christmas Carol, like Martin Chuzzlewit, concerns itself with the social ramifications of selfishness, but the characters of young Martin and old Martin are combined in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his moral journey, which takes place in three acts in one night, has the force of a revelation rather than the tedium of a lengthy trek by ox-drawn wagon. Some of the narrative had its origins in one of Dickens’s own vivid dreams, and surely the idea of of using dreams as a structural device had its origins there as well …

“But what makes A Christmas Carol work — what makes it so appealing a novella that William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens’s most self-conscious literary rival, called it ‘a national benefit’ — is the lightness of Dickens’s touch. Instead of hammering his points home, as he does in Martin Chuzzlewit, he is content (or more content) to let his images speak for themselves.”

Jane Smiley in Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life (Viking/Lipper, $19.95) www.penguinputnam.com. Smiley’s novels include A Thousand Acres www.randomhouse.com, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

For more on Dickens, visit the site for the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

The “Christmas Carol” in the title of Dickens’s novella is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which mentioned in the story. To listen to it, click here http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/godrest.htm.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2006

Josephine Ross on Jane Austen’s View of Manners

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Recommended if … you’re looking for an ideal gift for an Austen fan.

Published: October 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book-review blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels.

 

 

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: