One-Minute Book Reviews

April 21, 2014

Margaret Craven’s Novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ – O, Canada!

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A dying priest makes peace with his fate while serving as a missionary to Indians in British Columbia

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. By Margaret Craven. Dell, 160 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1965, the American journalist Margaret Craven spent several weeks in a remote Indian village in British Columbia, hoping to find material for a story. There she met Eric Powell, an Anglian priest who ministered to the Kwakiutls, a tribe whose elders were struggling to preserve their traditions as their young people left for government boarding schools or turned from ancient myths and totems to alcoholism, drug abuse and other modern ills.

Craven drew on that experience for her first novel, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller soon after its publication in the United States. More than 40 years later, I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains a rarity in North American fiction: a book equally sympathetic to Indians and to the white missionaries who tried to help them, little as they understood tribal customs.

The young priest Mark Brian doesn’t know he has a terminal illness –- unnamed in the novel — when he accepts a posting to the imperiled fishing village of Kingcome, which sits in a river valley below snow-tipped mountains on an inlet in British Columbia. Lonely and beset by hardships such as a ramshackle vicarage and a collision with a brown bear that hibernates under his church, Mark nonetheless faces his challenges with a steady faith, kindness and capacity for hard work. Those virtues win over the skeptical Kwakiutls, among them a tribal matriarch whose previous encounters with outsiders have led her to take the sly revenge of serving mashed turnips to visiting dignitaries because “No white man liked mashed turnips.” The Kwakiutls in turn earn Mark’s admiration for their wisdom, their perseverance amid calamities, and their willingness to help with tasks from steering a boat to building a new vicarage.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name spans nearly two years in the life of the gradually maturing priest, whose parishioners live with ever-present reminders of the death. Mark holds the hand of 46-year-old Kwakiutl woman, lying on a blood-soaked bed, who has what will turn out to be a fatal hemorrhage while giving birth to her sixth child. He trudges through the underbrush with a hunter who, if he wishes to have venison steaks on his table, must look to the woods, not a supermarket. He watches ceremonial dances that honor the customs and memory of Kwakiutl ancestors, many of whom perished in tribal wars generations earlier. Amid so much darkness, he finds comfort not just in his friendships with the Indians but in the natural splendor of the region, which Craven evokes keenly. One year autumn comes softly, with the second blooming of the dogwood trees: “Slowly, as the needles fell, the waters of the inlet grew less clear, and on the river floated the first green leaves of the alders. When the nights cooled, the little berry bush burned crimson under the great, dark cedar, and on one deep green island side, a single cottonwood turned gold.”

This brief, parable-like story lacks the moral, spiritual and literary complexity of such great novels as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Diary of a Country Priest, which may explain why it tends to appear today on young-adult shelves. Some minor characters serve mainly as vehicles for points the author wants to make, particularly about whites’ insensitivity to indigenous tribes. (When a boorish American woman arrives via yacht and asks: “How do you tell the Indians apart?,” Mark replies mildly that he did it “the same way she told her friends apart, because she knew them.”) The priest faces no crisis of the soul and expresses his faith in deeds, not creeds, and in plain-spoken messages of hope. “He was young enough,” Craven writes, “to be a little proud of his first sermon, to which he had given considerable thought: ‘It is better to be a small shrimp in the sea of faith then a dead whale on the beach.’”

But if the novel if the novel has a simple message, it is not a morbid one. Death is so common in Kingcome that Mark comes to see it as natural and at times heroic. The salmon that die soon after spawning in nearby waters provide a central metaphor for his story and suggest its theme. When a Kwakiutl woman laments that the fish perish soon after giving birth, Mark corrects her. A salmon lives a life of courage and adventure, the priest says, and dies after “having spent himself completely for the end for which he was made”: “It is triumph.” So, too, is Mark’s life. It reminds us, as George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” of people “who lived faithfully a hidden life.”

Best line: “Now time had lost its contours.”

Worst line: “The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land,” the young priest’s bishop says. In this line and a number of others, the novel romanticizes Canada’s indigenous people even as it sympathizes with their hardships.

Published: 1967 (Clarke, Irwin, Canada); 1973 (Doubleday, U.S.)

You may also want to read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, a similarly short book that resembles a parable.

Furthermore: A 1973 movie version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name starred Tom Courtenay as Mark Brian.

Jan is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. You can follow Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2013

Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman

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Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?

A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.

An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”

– Janice Harayda

October 29, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers’ – Not Your Mother’s Novel of the 1970s

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“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ah, those single women of the 1970s, always tossing their metaphorical tam-o’-shanters into the air like Mary Tyler Moore or getting stabbed to death in their beds like Roseann Quinn, the inspiration for Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Born in 1968, Rachel Kushner isn’t buying it, as well she shouldn’t. In this historical novel rooted in the downtown Manhattan art world, she offers a more complex portrait of a single woman living by her wits during the waning of what is euphemistically called the Disco Decade.

Kushner brings an astringent documentary sensibility to The Flamethrowers, which tells the story of a motorcycle enthusiast and filmmaker in her early 20s who arrives in New York at the end of the Nixon era. Her heroine, known as Reno, has an affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and scion of a family of industrialists back in Italy who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. While she and her lover are visiting his relatives near Lake Como, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

Reno’s first-person narration alternates throughout the novel with third-person accounts of the World War II and other experiences of Sandro’s father, the head of the fictional Valera tire and motor vehicle company, so large “it was practically a public utility.” The flashbacks to an earlier generation may describe scenes that Kushner’s protagonist has imagined or heard about from her lover, and they support a sweeping theme that spans decades and continents: High-speed 20th-century machines (and machine-made art) can serve as either weapons or as armor. As Sandro says, a weapon is “almost a work of art.” And a work of art is a weapon.

Kushner explores other complex themes that, along with her point-of-view shifts, dilute her portrait of Reno, who seems to exist as a foil for others’ ideas more than a character in her own right. After crashing a motorbike on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Reno asks a mechanic to call Sandro in New York to let him know. She reflects, after the man tells her that a woman answered the phone at her lover’s loft: “A woman? I figured there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number. Or maybe someone from Sandro’s gallery had come over, not unusual, to photograph artworks or prepare them for shipment.”

Single women have a genius for rationalizing the behavior of their errant boyfriends, but the obtuseness Reno shows in that passage and a number of others clashes with the intelligence she displays elsewhere in the book. Reno is a font of elegant observations, whether they involve a young woman who arrives at a gallery “in a black sliplike dress, tiny shoulder blades like a bird’s wings” or Sandro’s belief that “Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.” But Reno’s words tell you more about the people in her orbit than about her. For all its virtues, The Flamethrowers resembles a handsome car in which the clutch never quite gets let out all the way.

Best line: One of many “best”: Reno is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothing: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Worst line: Quoted in the review above. Kushner would have us believe that Reno thinks, on learning that a woman has answered her lover’s phone: “I figured that there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number.” That’s a rationalization worthy of the title character of Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels. If you believe it, I would like to sell you a bridge over the Arno.

A reader’s guide to The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Furthermore: Published in April 2013, The Flamethrowers is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. Kushner’s earlier Telex From Cuba was shortlisted for the prize.

Jan is an award-winning critic who, as book editor of the Plain Dealer, was  a judge for the National Book Critics Circle awards. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Flamethrowers,’ Rachel Kushner’s 2013 National Book Award Finalist

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other 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.

Can a weapon be a work of art? Can a work of art be a weapon? Rachel Kusher explores these and other themes in a novel about a young motorcycle enthusiast who moves from Nevada to New York at the end of the Nixon era. Known by her nickname of Reno, Kushner’s heroine has an affair with Sandro Valera, a Manhattan artist and heir to the fortune that his industrialist family in Italy has made by exploiting the poor. Through Sandro, Reno gains access to a downtown art world of dealers, gallery owners and others that is coming alive in the 1970s. But when she and her lover visit his relatives in the Italian Lake District, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

1. The Flamethrowers begins — unusually for a novel — not with its heroine but with a brief chapter on T.P. Valera, the father of her lover, Sandro. How well did the opening work? Would you have stayed with the novel if you had not known that it was finalist for a National Book Award?

2. How does Reno change over the course of The Flamethrowers? (Some critics have called the book a coming-of-age novel, a genre in which a character typically gains hard-won wisdom. What has Reno gained by the end of the novel? What has she lost?)

3. If Reno changes quite a bit by the end of the book, Sandro seems hardly to have changed at all. Why do you think this is so? (Or do you think Sandro does change?)

4. The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that The Flamethrowers “is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art).” (Bookforum, April/May 2013, print edition only.) What do you think the novel is “about”?

5.  James Wood of The New Yorker said that The Flamethrowers is “nominally a historical novel” (because its author, born in 1968, would have been too young to experience its events). Many historical novels have a musty air or reek of the author’s research. Did The Flamethrowers? If not, what made it fresh?

6. Kusher tells her story from two points of view. One is clearly Reno’s first-person perspective. What is the second? Whose point of view do we find in the third-person sections that Reno doesn’t narrate? (Suggested answers appears in the One-Minute Book Reviews review of the novel.)

7. Sandro sees machines, especially weapons, as “almost a work of art.” [p. 288] But some of the characters in The Flamethrowers seem to reflect the opposite view: They use art as a weapon. How do they do this? Does our culture encourage artists, including musicians and filmmakers, to use art against others?

8. Women in The Flamethrowers often have second-class status, even in radical groups. What is Kushner saying about their role in the 1970s? Does any of it still apply in 2013? Is there any truth, for example, to T.P. Valera’s observation, that women “were trapped in time” and “moved at a different velocity” than men did? [p. 79]

9. Reno quotes Sandro as saying: “Sex is not about exchange values … It’s a gift economy.” [p. 208] What did he mean? How does this comment reflect their relationship and others’?

10. The Flamethrowers has many sharp images and scenes of New York, Milan and other places. Which ones were most memorable?

Vital statistics:

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99. Published: January 2012. Kushner also wrote Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist.

A review of The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

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

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are marketing tools designed to sell books instead of unbiased analyses. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

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

September 28, 2013

What I’m Reading … Rachel Kushner’s Novel, ‘The Flamethrowers’

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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Flamethrowers (Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99), by Rachel Kushner.

What it is: A Didion-esque novel about young filmmaker and motorcycle enthusiast who moves in 1975 from Nevada to Lower Manhattan, where she has an affair with an artist from a family of Italian industrialists who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. Kushner’s protagonist finds herself swept up in dangerous currents of radical politics when, while she and her lover are visiting his mother in Bellagio, factory workers go on strike and the Red Brigades step up their campaign of terror against Italy’s elite.

Why I’m reading it: The Flamethrowers has been longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. NBA nominations have been spectacularly unreliable — and, at times, disastrous — in recent years, but some reviews suggest that this novel deserves the recognition.

How much I’ve read: Nearly all.

Quote from the book: Kushner’s protagonist is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothes: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Furthermore: Christian Lorentzen, a senior editor of the London Review of Books, wrote in a review of The Flamethrowers for the print edition of Bookforum: “The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street.” He added that Kushner’s “most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk.”

Probability that I will review the book: High, especially if it makes the National Book Awards shortlist.

Jan is an award-winning critic and former book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

May 25, 2013

James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences — From ‘All That Is’ and ‘Dusk’

Filed under: Novels,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:40 pm
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James Salter’s novel All That Is came out last month, and many articles about it have quoted Richard Ford’s comment that Salter “writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” Does he deserve that praise? You be the judge.

Here are 10 sentences from All That Is and from Salter’s PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Dusk and Other Stories:

From All That Is
“It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.”
“Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” in that sentence is redundant.

“It’s too peaceful.” [A sailor just before a kamikaze strike on his ship]
Cavalrymen say this before the Apaches attack in cowboy movies.

“He had no system for gambling, he bet on instinct, some men seem to have a gift for it.” 
Meet the king of the comma splices.

“Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery …”
No comment.

“Her husband-to-be was smiling as she came towards him, Sophie was smiling, nearly everyone was.”

Apart from the comma splices: What’s with the British spelling of “towards,” which appears 36 times in this novel about an American man? It’s “toward” in American English. The book also uses “backwards” instead of the American “backward.”

From Dusk and Other Stories
“Forty-six. … She would never be any younger.”
In other words, she’s just like the rest of us who will never be any younger.

“Of course, she was nervous. She was thirty.”
See a theme developing?

“He was wildly generous, he seemed to care nothing for money, it was crumpled in his pockets like waste paper, when he paid for things it would fall to the floor.”
More comma splices.

“She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.”
When he says “no one now wanted,” he means, “no man now wanted.”

“Her most useful friend was a hysterical woman named Mirella Ricci, who had a large apartment and aristocratic longings, also the fears and illnesses of women who live alone.”
Women have their uses, even if they’re “hysterical? And what are those unspecified “fears and illnesses of women who live alone”? They can’t be worse than the “fears and illnesses” of men who live alone, who die younger and are less healthy than their female peers.

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

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

May 8, 2012

Carol Anshaw’s Novel of Adult Siblings, ‘Carry the One’ — Bel Canto Writing With Grand Opera Undertones

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“Time is always a player” in the lives of three adult siblings touched by tragedy

Carry the One. By Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

You might expect a lot of drama in a novel in which the three main characters have the names of opera figures or variations on them. But Carry the One inverts the structure of the warhorses it invokes – Carmen, Nabucco and Lucia di Lammermoor. The dead bodies in those operas don’t arrive until the third or fourth act. A 10-year-old girl dies in the first chapter of Carry the One after being struck by a car full of stoned and drunken guests who have just attended wedding of Carmen Kenney at a farm near Chicago in 1983. That event turns out to be the high point of the dramatic action in a novel that for all its eloquence, has an unsteady forward momentum.

For the next 25 years the post-wedding tragedy will recur like a dark musical motif in the lives of the bride and her adult siblings, Alice and Nick. Each of the Kenneys faces a crisis with a perhaps unintentional operatic counterpart. As her namesake spurns a soldier for a toreador, Carmen finds herself betrayed by her unexciting husband. As Lucia longs for the lord of Ravenswood Castle, Alice pines for an absent lesbian lover. And as Nabucco goes mad, Nick suffers from a mind ravaged by drugs. All of this finds its theme in an idea central to Gounod’s Faust: the power of time to lift, add to, or reshape burdens. In affairs of the heart, a character says, “Time is always a player.” And “player” has a double meaning: Time affects destiny, and it plays with us.

Carl Anshaw develops her theme with wit and intelligence. She has the literary equivalent of a gift for bel canto, an operatic form marked in part by its elegance of phrasing and purity of tone. Carry the One abounds with writing layered with meaning, beginning in its first sentence: “So Carmen was married, just.” Does the “just” mean “recently,” “barely,” or “only”? The scene can support all of those meanings.

Appealing as it is, Anshaw’s bel canto writing style makes an imperfect vehicle for a story with grand opera undertones. Her plot unfolds over so many years that she can’t dramatize all of the changes her characters undergo and at times relies on flat exposition such as, “She knew Carmen tortured herself for letting them all leave the farm that night in a car running with just fog lamps.” She also distributes weight of her story over so many major and minor characters — with frequent jump cuts from one to the next — that none acquires a poignancy befitting its tragedies. And the self-absorption of the Kenney children’s parents tends to cloud the motives of the younger generation: You’re never sure whether the heavy shadow over their lives results from their upbringing or the fatal crash in the opening pages.

But you don’t to operas for plots that make sense in conventional terms. Would all of Seville really be falling at the feet of an overconfident barber like Figaro? Shouldn’t Lucia di Lammermoor know right away that the forged letter is a trick to keep her from marrying Enrico? And why can’t a smooth operator like Carmen keep herself out of trouble?

No, you go to operas for beautiful singing. And Carry the One has a through-line of it. When Carmen becomes a single parent, she finds that “she had lost her advantage against daily life”: “Weeks, whole months passed beneath her notice, or off to the side while she was on the game show of her life. She ran from pillar to post then on to the next pillar, ringing bells, pressing lighted buttons and buzzers, making wild stabs at answers to questions she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly, walking when she should be skipping, speaking when a song was expected. That show was called Single Parenthood.” Has any single parent not had moments like that? Carry the One has such descriptions on nearly every page. And that, in operatic terms, is beautiful singing.

Best line: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” “Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury …” “Gabe idolized his uncle. He saw Nick’s addictions enhanced by rock star lighting. Nick was his private Kurt Cobain.”

Worst line: “a tricky rotator cuff.” “So many tricky steps.” “some tricky bipolar disorder.” “success was going to be a little tricky.” “Incoming calls were tricky for the Lisowskis” Waiting for an annulment “was apparently a tricky business.” “Still, she left the tricky or cumbersome supply runs to Pim.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for  Carry the One appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 8, 2012.

Furthermore: Anshaw is a Chicago writer and painter who wrote Aquamarine and other books. She won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. The Metropolitan Opera site includes synopses of CarmenLucia di Lammermoor and Nabucco.

Published: March 2012

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

March 21, 2012

What I’m Reading … Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’

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The latest in a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review

What I’m reading: The Call of the Wild (Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback), with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow.

What it is: A classic adventure novel about Buck, a dog kidnapped from his California owner and forced to endure savage hardships during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. The story of Buck’s transformation in the wild is, as the novelist E.L. Doctorow says in his introduction, a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.”

Why I’m reading it: For a book club. I’m rereading The Call of the Wild for the first time in more than a decade.

Quote from the book: “One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call (or one note of it, for the call was many noted), distinct and definite as never before, — a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by a husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before.”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition I’m reading). Many good editions exist.

Probability that I will review the book: High

Furthermore: My edition calls The Call of the Wild “perhaps the best novel ever written about animals” on its back cover. Forgotten that whales are mammals, eh, Library of America?

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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May 22, 2011

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

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Stories about “the action of grace on a character” who resists it

Everything That Rises Must Converge. By Flannery O’Connor. Introduction by Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, a symbol of immortality in Christian art. Her stories rank among their American literary equivalents, a sign and example of timeless fiction about sin and redemption in an age of ephemera.

O’Connor once said that all of her stories were about “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it” – typically because of pride, envy, sloth, gluttony or another of the seven deadly sins. This is not to say that her work is abstruse. Everything That Rises Must Converge has nine of her later stories, and all are taut, clear, linear and free confusing shifts in point of view or time frame. They are among the most reliable antidotes to the disjointed, postmodern fiction that is so popular today.

All of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are tragicomedies that expose a spiritual void in the lives of their characters. The gap is typically thrown into relief by the convergence of races, classes or generations in the newly integrated South. One of the best stories is “Revelation,” which involves a self-satisfied churchgoer brought low partly by an assault that occurs in a doctor’s waiting room after a patient hears her alternately praising Jesus and talking about sending blacks back to Africa. Another of the finest is “Parker’s Back,” which deals with an ex-sailor who tries to ease his spiritual emptiness by marrying a preacher’s daughter and filling his body with tattoos but who suffers cruelly when those efforts intersect. In all of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge, redemption comes through divine grace after tragedy or great sorrow. Six of the nine end in violent death – they reverse the pattern of contemporary mysteries that serve up a corpse in the first pages – and in those in which everyone lives, an inner cataclysm unfolds.

For all their tragedy, these stories brim with humor. O’Connor keeps tragedy and comedy in an equipoise that few American writers can match. In the title story, a bitter and ungrateful college graduate lives at home and sells typewriters because he can’t earn a living as a writer. Julian mocks his widowed mother’s reverence for her prominent ancestors even as he benefits from the family pride that keeps her from tossing him onto the street: “She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things.” The humor modulates in this and other stories from deadpan wit and droll irony to much more satirical commentaries that fall equally on whites and blacks.

O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39 and won a posthumous National Book Award for fiction her Complete Stories. Few winners of that prize have deserved it more, and her stature has grown since she received it. In 2009 the sponsor of the award asked the public to vote for the first “Best of the National Book Awards” winner. O’Connor won for her Compete Stories, which includes all nine that appear in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Best line: Two from “Greenleaf”: “Wesley, the younger child, had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual.” “She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

Worst line: At times O’Connor uses a perhaps too heavy-handed verb, such as “hissed” or “groaned,” instead of “said” or another that sits more lightly on the page.

Published: 1965 (first edition).

Caveat lector: Everything That Rises Must Converge doesn’t include two of O’Connor’s best stories, “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which appear in the 555-page The Complete Stories. But it stands on its own and has an excellent 21-page introduction by Robert Fitzgerald.

Book clubs: If you can’t read one of O’Connor’s books, try reading three or four of her best stories, such as “Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back” and the title story in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Furthermore: One-Minute Book Reviews has also reviewed O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. It posted quotes from that book on symbols in fiction and on “compassion” in writers. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a collection of O’Connor’s letters in the Washington Post. One of the best resources about her work is the Flannery O’Connor Repository. Andalusia, the Georgia farm on which O’Connor raised peacocks, has a peafowl aviary open to visitors.

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2011

Edith Wharton’s Comedy of Manners and Morals in Post–Civil War New York, ‘The Age of Innocence’

Filed under: Classics,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:05 pm
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“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”

The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.

Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.

The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”

The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.

In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”

Worst line: Newland Archer  sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.

Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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