One-Minute Book Reviews

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 5, 2009

’14 Cows for America’– A Picture Book About Kenyans Who Offered Milk for the Soul of Americans After Sept. 11

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A bestseller about how an African village reacted to terrorism in America

14 Cows for America. By Carmen Agra Deedy in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. Peachtree, 38 pp., $17.95. Illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda
A few years ago, 60 Minutes did a story on a Ugandan girl whose family paid for her education by selling milk produced by a goat it had received from the American charity Heifer International. Fourteen Cows for America offers an unusual inversion of the premise that the rest of the world needs our help.

Carmen Agra Deedy tells the true story of group of Maasai in Kenya who decided to give some of their precious cows to America after hearing about the attacks of Sept. 11 from a villager who had studied at Stanford University. Her text works reasonably well until the last pages, which moralize and leave impression that the Kenyans sent their cows to the U.S. (when an afterword for adults makes clear that they remain in Africa, cared for by a tribal elder).

Thomas Gonzalez used pastels and colored pencils to give much of 14 Cows for America a reddish, post-apocalyptic haze – his cover would suit a tale of nuclear winter, or a children’s version of On the Beach. That mood fits the events of Sept. 11 but also suggests why this bestseller would work better in the classroom than in other settings. Fourteen Cows for America deals with the aftermath of tragedy that is still hard for many adults to fathom. This book could confuse children — especially younger ones — who read it without  a solid context for its story. It might fit well into a school or Sunday school unit, but other picture books would make better holiday gifts for children who will be reading or read to at home.

Ages: School Library Journal recommends 14 Cows for America for grades 2-5 (ages 7–10) in its review of the book. In a separate review on the SLJ blog Fuse #8, librarian Elizabeth Bird says it’s for ages 4–8 (preschool-grade 3).

Best Line: The title.

Worst line: “More than three thousand souls are lost.” This line refers to the death toll on Sept. 11, which was fewer than 3,000 people, including the hijackers, for all three sites.

Published: September 2009

Children’s book reviews appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Saturdays. Jan Harayda sometimes comments on children’s books during the week on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2009

Did Sept. 11 Make Us Fat? How the Attacks Affected the Weight-Loss Business

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:22 am
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Joseph Hallinan explores a brightly painted carousel of reasons for human error in his fascinating Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95). He concludes that time – among other factors – affects our decisions, no matter how much of it we have. He writes:

“After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, time horizons for many people in the United States shortened. People, especially those in big cities like New York, increasingly adopted a ‘live for the day’ attitude. Activities with long-term benefits, like diet and exercise, were out; treating oneself well in the here and now was in. One result: the diet chain Jenny Craig reported ‘a huge wave of cancellations.’”

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm
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If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 24, 2008

The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Unreliable Narration — Did the Narrator Do It?

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A Dutch-born banker in Manhattan becomes unmoored in a post-Sept. 11 ghost story with neo-Gothic undertones

Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This beautifully written novel is, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. Perhaps better than any other novel, Netherland captures a vital truth about Sept. 11: The story of New York City after the attacks is a ghost story — a tale of a place haunted by lost people, buildings and illusions.

As in most good ghost stories, a central question is: How credible is the teller of the tale? And as in many, neo-Gothic undertones abound, particularly in Joseph O’Neill’s descriptions of the Chelsea and its dim hallways, baronial staircase and tolerance for baroque tenants, including man who dresses as an angel and buys his wings at a shop called Religious Sex. Hans observes:

“Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of gravel.”

With such characters as a foil, Hans might seem to be a pillar of stolid Dutch respectability. After his wife and son decamp for London, he returns to the wholesome sport of cricket, which he had enjoyed as a boy, and falls in with a network of players that O’Neill evokes vibrantly. The group includes an umpire and streetwise Trinidadian dreamer named Chuck Ramkissoon, who involves Hans at least marginally in an unsavory money-making scheme.

Despite his association with Chuck, Hans stays out of trouble, or so it might seem. He tells his story after returning to London to rejoin his wife, so we know that in a certain sense he has escaped whatever perils he faced New York.

But hints that we may not be able to trust his story begin on the dust jacket, which warns that Netherland is about a New York City that is “phantasmagorical,” or marked by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. A few pages into the novel, after returning to London, Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter. She says that Chuck Ramkisson has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal and that she wants to confirm a fact in her notes — that Hans was Chuck’s business partner. Hans denies it. Netherland has hardly begun, but already we know: The narrator is lying or somebody else is. Soon afterward, we learn that Hans’s wife, Rachel, moved back to London because she began to question what she called “the narrative of our marriage.” Does she have her own fears about him?

The questions mount as the plot circles back to Chuck’s death in the last pages. After learning of her husband’s ties to the cricketer found in the Gowanus, Rachel calls a lawyer. Hans tells us that the attorney opines that “as a practical matter I have nothing to fear.” As a practical matter? Does he have something to fear on other levels?

Netherland never reveals who killed Chuck and, on that count, ends ambiguously. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of the killer is beside the point, and, on one level, she’s right. This novel is less about one man’s death than about fraying welcome mat that America puts out for immigrants of all social classes.

But the identity of the killer does matter – if the murderer was Hans, which would cast the novel in a new light. Nothing explicitly implicates him, but nothing exculpates him either. And if you look up “van den Broek” in a Dutch-English dictionary you find that a possible translation is “from the pine marsh” or “swamp.” The Gowanus Canal was built through a marsh where pine trees apparently grew.

Is it a coincidence that Hans’s name describes the place where Chuck’s body turned up? In a novel in which a man buys his angel’s wings at a store called Religious Sex, you never know.

Best line: Nearly every page has one. Toward the end of the book, Hans and his wife are riding a taxi when Rachel recalls their life in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 – “God, do you remember those sirens?” – and squeezes his hand. “Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage’s course,” Hans reflects. “We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realize.”

Worst line: “Personally, things remained as they were.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Netherland was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 24, 2008, in the post that preceded this review. This guide focuses on the issue of unreliable narration in the novel as it relates to the question: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon? If you are reading this on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading this on the Web, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

Published: May 2008 www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043

About the author: O’Neill was born in Ireland, grew up mainly in Holland and lives in New York City. He wrote the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes and the family history, Blood-Dark Track.

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. Some critics disagree that The Turn of the Screw involves unreliable narration. A discussion of this aspect of James’s novel appears en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.

Note: The translation of “van den Broek” comes from Yahoo! Babel Fish. If you can provide a more accurate one, would you kindly leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the Contact page?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Netherland
A Novel by Joseph O’Neill
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 copy it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish 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

Netherland is an elegant study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. As the dust jacket notes, Netherland is about a city that has become “phantasmagorical,” or characterized by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. Joseph O’Neill never resolves a mystery at the heart of the book: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon, the streetwise Trinidadian dreamer and cricket umpire who has involved Hans in an illegal business? Partly because of its ambiguous ending, Netherland is the rare novel that years from now may still inspire debate.

The publisher of Netherland has posted on its site a reader’s guide to the novel that your group may want to use as a starting point for discussion www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043. That list of questions is better than many, partly because it encourages you to consider such things structure of the novel – a vital aspect of fiction that often receives no attention in publishers’ guides. In other ways, the Pantheon guide reflects a tin ear for the kinds of things that book clubs enjoy discussing. In this case the most obvious is the question of who killed Chuck Ramkissoon. For this reason, although many Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are more comprehensive, this one focuses on that issue.

Questions for Readers

1. The first pages of Netherland say that the remains of Chuck Ramkissoon have been found in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder.” [Page 5] When a dead body turns up early in a novel, you usually find out by the end who killed the person. In Netherland, you don’t. Why do you think Joseph O’Neill left that issue unresolved?

2. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of Chuck’s killer is “beside the point.” Do you believe it is beside the point? Why or why not? How did not learning the identity of the killer affect your view of the novel?

3. As in a traditional murder mystery, the victim hadn’t led a spotless life, and many people might have wanted him dead. Do you believe Chuck was killed by one of the characters in the novel or by someone who never appears in it? Why?

4. The dust jacket says that Netherland is about a city that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, has become “phantasmagorical.” How, if at all, might this relate to Chuck’s killer?

5. Netherland is to some extent a study in the literary technique known as “unreliable narration.” This involves a narrator we can’t fully trust. Narrators can be unreliable for many reasons. They may be mentally unstable, pathological liars, criminals who want to hide their crimes, older people who have fading memories, or children who are too young to have a clear understanding of events. Or they may be under so much stress that they can’t accept reality, or in what a psychiatrist would call “denial.” (You can read more about the technique by searching for “unreliable narrator: on sites such as Answers.com or Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator). Might any of these apply to Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland?

6. O’Neill hints early on that Hans may be an unreliable narrator. Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter who wants him to confirm a fact in her notes — that he was Chuck’s business partner. [Page 5] Hans denies this. We’re only a few pages into the novel, but already it’s clear: He’s lying (or “in denial”) or someone else is. Did you see other signs that Hans may not be telling his story straight up?

7. Not long afterward, the man at the Chelsea Hotel who wears angel’s wings tells Hans that his cat has disappeared and may have been kidnapped. What do you think happened to the cat? Could Hans have killed it? Why is this scene in the novel? [Page 36]

8. Later Hans takes home a woman named Danielle whom he has met in a diner. He has sex with her and beats her with a belt — “a pale white hitting a pale black” — because, he tells us, he “understood her to need” this. [Page 115] Hans says he was “shocked” when she later failed to return his phone messages. This scene tells you a number of things about him. First, he is capable of violence. Second, his perceptions of reality are “off.” Third, he may have beaten her more severely than he lets on, and this may explain why she didn’t call back. How would you explain his behavior in the scene? Does it affect your overall view of his trustworthiness or lack of it?

9. What did you make of the fact that Hans had never told his wife, Rachel, about Chuck and helping him collect bets for his numbers game? [Page 238] Did you attribute this simply to problems in their marriage? Or do you think something else was going on?

10. Given all of this, could Hans have killed Chuck? If so, would the meaning of the novel be different than if Chuck had been killed by, say, the angry husband of his mistress or by someone who felt Chuck had cheated him in his numbers game?

Extras
11. Many well-known novels have unreliable narrators. These include Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (Some critics disagree about the last en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.) If you’ve read any, how would you compare them to Netherland?

12. Why does Netherland open with Hans “boxing up” his possessions when he appears to have a high enough position that he could have had someone do this for him? [Page 3] Are the boxes a metaphor for how he boxes up or compartmentalize parts of his life?

Vital statistics:
Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23. 95. Published: May 2008

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. A review appeared immediately after this guide on June 24, 2008.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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November 2, 2007

Lynn Curlee Puts His Own Spin on the World’s Tallest Buildings in ‘Skyscraper,’ a Picture Book for 8-to-12-Year-Olds

Skyscraper. By Lynn Curlee. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 8-12.

By Janice Harayda

Lately I’ve been looking into some of the potential candidates for the Newbery and Caldecott medals that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. As usual, it’s been both inspiring and disheartening.

Some publishers are clearly putting enormous care into turning out wonderful children’s books. At the same time, they are continuing to pander nakedly to the all-important school and library markets, sometimes undermining the accuracy or credibility of an otherwise worthy book.

A recent casualty is Lynn Curlee’s Skyscraper, a beautifully produced social history of the world’s tallest buildings, which has an elegant Art Deco design and color palette. This book might seem to have little in common with Brian Selznick’s novel in words and pictures, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But like Selznick, Curlee has created a book for 8-to-12-year-olds that plays successfully with form. Skyscraper is a picture book with chapters (though they aren’t identified as such but are introduced by quotations from famous architects such as I.M. Pei and Robert Venturi).

A typical spread consists of a right-hand page with a color illustration of a skyscraper and a left-hand page with at least 250 words of text, more than in many chapter books. It’s a fresh treatment of its subject that brims with interesting material. Did you know that the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, “the first great New York skyscraper,” looks like “the prow of a ship steaming up the avenue”?

But Skyscraper also shows how egregiously publishers can pander to the prevailing ideologies at many schools and libraries. Curlee writes that up to 3,400 people worked on the construction of the Empire State Building at the same time: “A number of these men were Native Americans, who had a reputation for working fearlessly at great heights.”

That might have been fine if the book had also mentioned a few of the other ethnic groups who worked on the first skyscrapers in far greater numbers than Native Americas, such as the Italian stonemasons who learned their trade in their homeland before applying their skills in America. It doesn’t. And through such omissions, this book insults the many Italian and other immigants who risked their lives to create the glorious skylines of Chicago, New York and other cities early in the 20th century. The message it sends to their young descendants is clear: “Your ancestors’ contributions aren’t as interesting or important as those of Native Americans.” But why would the Mohawks’ famous skywalking be less interesting to 9-year-olds than work on the great stone gargoyles that adorn so many skyscrapers?

It gets worse when Curlee describes the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, he says, “a band of radical terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and attacked the United States, using the comandeered aircraft as lethal guided missiles.” That “radical terrorists” is absurd on two counts. First, the word “radical” tells you nothing — in a sense, every terrorist act is “radical.” And in the case of Sept. 11, the terrorists were the opposite of the usual definition of a “radical” — they were Islamic fundamentalists or reactionaries. Why doesn’t Skyscraper say this? Apparently because to do so might have offended some Muslims and made the book a tougher sell to schools and libraries. Instead we have a book that could leave some children with the idea that the attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by, say, a remnant of the radical Weather Underground of the 1960s.

Obviously children’s picture books need to present their material at an appropriate level for their readers and omit some of the nuances of books for adults. But many children’s authors have shown that this doesn’t have to involve spinning history in a way that slights or denies the role — good or bad — that different ethnic groups have played in it, whether they are Italian stonemasons or Islamic fundamentalists. Those authors are the ones who deserve awards from librarians and others.

Best line: One of the strengths of Skyscraper is that it looks beyond architecture and situates buildings in a human context, as in this passage: “Immense buildings cause controversy because they do not belong just to their owners. Once they are built, everyone must live with them. They totally transform the neighborhoods in which they are raised. Since they consume enormous amounts of energy and cause congestion, there are very real questions about their worth. Who should make the decisions about building structures that affect everyone? Just how do skyscrapers benefit society? How do skyscrapers contribute or detract from the conditions of life in a city? What form should our cities take? How densely should huge buildings be packed together? How big is too big?”

Worst line: Curlee’s account of Sept. 11, quoted in the review.

Published: March 2007 www.simonsayskids.com

Furthermore: Curlee www.curleeart.com won a Sibert Honor Award for his Brooklyn Bridge. He also wrote Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields and other books for children.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 11, 2007

9/11 Widows Tell Their Story in ‘Love You, Mean It’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 pm
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[This is a re-post in full of a review that appeared on this site on Oct. 24, 2006. My brother Jack worked for a company in the World Trade Center and survived the attacks because he was off-site on Sept. 11, then was killed by a drunk driver just over a year later. To read my "My Turn" column for Newsweek on his death, click on the "My Articles" page on www.janiceharayda.com, then on the Newsweek cover.]

A new review of Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good appears in the post directly below this one.]

First came tragedy. Then came the people who told them, “It could be worse.”

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Love You, Mean It came out just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so you might be tempted to view it as strictly a post-mortem on that tragedy. It works much better as memoir of traumatic loss, that unique form of grief that occurs when you have no time to prepare emotionally for a death.

The authors of Love You, Mean It are all intelligent professional women widowed by the attacks. So it’s surprising that they have so little to say about subjects that have preoccupied some of the other victims’ families: the rescue efforts by police and fire departments, the financial settlements offered by the Victim Compensation Fund, the future memorial at Ground Zero.

Instead they focus on the brutal cost of losing a spouse even when you have money and the world’s sympathy. Pattie Carrington kept her alarm clock set for two years to six a.m., “the same as it was on the morning of September 11.” Julia Collins sat in her husband’s closet, “just to be near the smell of clothes that had touched his body.” Claudia Gerbasi heard that people had found safety in the shopping center under the towers and convinced herself that her husband had made it to the Duane Reade drugstore “and could survive a week on Oreos and Diet Coke.” Ann Haynes had what she calls “a mini-breakdown.”

Anyone has lost a relative to a sudden and violent death will believe these stories and the catalog of thoughtless comments the women heard, which ranged from patronizing (“You’re going to be okay”) to cruel. Gerbasi left a doctor of eight years who told her: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles.”

Love You, Mean It lacks the artistry of Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Lynne Caine’s Widow (Bantam, 1987), partly because of an inelegant structure jerrybuilt for four points of views. Even so, it has moments approaching poetry in the observations of Carrington, the most thoughtful and introspective of the group. One night she sees a crescent moon and imagines it to be the initial of her lost husband, Caz, who is communicating with her though it. Later she thinks of him as she plants blue lobelias at their beach house. “My life here was continuing,” she says,” always bittersweet, always a modified version of what it had been.”

Best line: “The longing doesn’t go away. There will always be loss written into our hearts. But we have come a great distance – the pain is finally beginning to cool. It lives on a deeper level now, like strata in rock, not visible on the surface, but always there, keeping us grounded, giving us the stability to stand taller.”

Worst line: “Ann and Ned discovered that they had another mutual friend in common.” Lucky they didn’t meet through one of those mutual friends they didn‘t have in common.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Recommended if … you’re grieving for someone who died a sudden, traumatic death.

Published: September 2006 www.hyperionbooks.com and www.loveyoumeanit.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2006

9/11 Widows Learn to Think About the Unthinkable

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:34 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

First came tragedy. Then came the people who told them, “It could be worse.”

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95.

Love You, Mean It came out just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so you might be tempted to view it as strictly a post-mortem on that tragedy. It works much better as memoir of traumatic loss, that unique form of grief that occurs when you have no time to prepare emotionally for a death.

The authors of Love You, Mean It are all intelligent professional women widowed by the attacks. So it’s surprising that they have so little to say about subjects that have preoccupied some of the other victims’ families: the rescue efforts by police and fire departments, the financial settlements offered by the Victim Compensation Fund, the future memorial at Ground Zero.

Instead they focus on the brutal cost of losing a spouse even when you have money and the world’s sympathy. Pattie Carrington kept her alarm clock set for two years to six a.m., “the same as it was on the morning of September 11.” Julia Collins sat in her husband’s closet, “just to be near the smell of clothes that had touched his body.” Claudia Gerbasi heard that people had found safety in the shopping center under the towers and convinced herself that her husband had made it to the Duane Reade drugstore “and could survive a week on Oreos and Diet Coke.” Ann Haynes had what she calls “a mini-breakdown.”

Anyone has lost a relative to a sudden and violent death will believe these stories and the catalog of thoughtless comments the women heard, which ranged from patronizing (“You’re going to be okay”) to cruel. Gerbasi left a doctor of eight years who told her: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles.”

Love You, Mean It lacks the artistry of Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Lynne Caine’s Widow (Bantam, 1987), partly because of an inelegant structure jerrybuilt for four points of views. Even so, it has moments approaching poetry in the observations of Carrington, the most thoughtful and introspective of the group. One night she sees a crescent moon and imagines it to be the initial of her lost husband, Caz, who is communicating with her though it. Later she thinks of him as she plants blue lobelias at their beach house. “My life here was continuing,” she says,” always bittersweet, always a modified version of what it had been.”

Best line: “The longing doesn’t go away. There will always be loss written into our hearts. But we have come a great distance – the pain is finally beginning to cool. It lives on a deeper level now, like strata in rock, not visible on the surface, but always there, keeping us grounded, giving us the stability to stand taller.”

Worst line: “Ann and Ned discovered that they had another mutual friend in common.” Lucky they didn’t meet through one of those mutual friends they didn‘t have in common.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Recommended if … you’re grieving for someone who died a sudden, traumatic death.

Published: September 2006 www.loveyoumeanit.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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