One-Minute Book Reviews

November 20, 2009

A Midwestern Gothic Boyhood – David Small’s Graphic Memoir for Adults and Teenagers, ‘Stitches’

An illustrator found that during a painful childhood, “Art became my home.”

Stitches: A Memoir. By David Small. Norton, 329 pp., $24.95. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

David Small’s mother had her heart in the wrong place — literally. Elizabeth Small was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, and the defect serves as a metaphor for her coldness to her son in this graphic memoir and Midwestern Gothic tale of growing up in Detroit in the 1950s.

As a teenager, Small had surgery for throat cancer caused by high doses of radiation given to him by his physician father for sinus problems. His parents didn’t tell him he had cancer, and he learned of it from a purloined letter. He discovered that his mother was a lesbian when he found her in bed with another woman and that his grandmother was insane when she set her house on fire.

Small blends real and imagined scenes as he describes these and other traumas in a book that fittingly bears many hallmarks of neo-gothics: a madwoman, night terrors, family secrets, a locked drawer, mysterious passageways, a church with pointed arches. He also nods to Alice in Wonderland through both words and pictures, including images of a psychiatrist-as-White-Rabbit who helps him burrow into his past and find redemption through art.

Working in pen-and-ink washed with black and white, Small has filled Stitches with artistically and psychologically rich illustrations that help to offset the limits of the weaker, solipsistic text. In his pictures he vividly shows the world from a child’s point of view, often by casting himself as a small figure looking up at adults whose eyes are obscured by glasses that suggest their inability to see him for who he is.

But Small writes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, which at times makes for subtle discontinuities between the images and words. The back matter suggests that he knows his mother comes across as a monster and that he became aware of some aspects of her grief only after she died. And yet countless writers have made you feel both their youthful sorrow and that of the parents who caused it.

The pain of unhappy housewives like Elizabeth Small was powerful enough to help launch the modern feminist movement. Hers must have been that much greater because she had the added burden of having to hide her sexual identity. But Stitches gives you little sense of that pain; you see its roots in her own upbringing, but you never feel it. Perhaps a sequel will capture more of the spirit of a quotation in Small’s afterword about his mother, which comes from the poet Edward Dahlberg, “Nobody heard her tears; the heart is a fountain of weeping water which makes no noise in the world.”

Ages: Stitches made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature, and some people questioned whether it belonged there or in an adult category. It’s a judgment call: This is a crossover book that may appeal both to mature teenagers and to adults who enjoy graphic novels and memoirs.

Best line/picture: No. 1: “Art became my home.” No. 2: In a review in the Washington Post, Michael Sims described one of the finest pictures in the book, which appears on the frontispiece and elsewhere: “The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn’t sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into.”

Worst line/picture: “On the one hand, I felt the fear, humiliation and pain … While on the other, for reasons I could not quite understand, I felt that she was justified … and that I deserved everything I had gotten.” This passage supposedly describes Small’s feelings at the age of six but sounds more like something he worked out later in therapy. It is also involves telling rather than showing. Small doesn’t trust you to understand his feelings from his pictures, as he does in many other parts of the book, so he overelaborates here.

Published: September 2009

About the author: Small also wrote Imogene’s Antlers and illustrated Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?, which won the 2001 Caldecott Medal. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Born in 1945, he lives in Michigan.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturday’s. You can also follow Jan on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where further comments on them sometimes appear during the week.

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

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

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

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion — A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Mitch Albom gets religion in Have a Little Faith, a memoir of his encounters with his childhood rabbi in New Jersey and a pastor he met as an adult in Detroit. Albom was a finalist in the annual Delete Key Awards competition for bad writing in books for his novel For One More Day, written at a third-grade reading level according to the readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. Is his new book better? A review of Have a Little Faith will appear this week on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

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