One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

June 3, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #3 – Flannery O’Connor’s Collection of Essays on Writing, ‘Mystery and Manners’

A  Southern novelist and short story writer considers the literature of her region and others

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most people associate the Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor with novels and short stories, but she was equally good at nonfiction. She proves it in this elegant collection of essays on life, literature and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

Sally and Robert Fitzgerald adapted the pieces in Mystery and Manners from talks from O’Connor gave at colleges and elsewhere, and part of their charm lies in their conversational tone. Some of their topics are classroom-worthy: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The Teaching of Literature,” “Catholic Novelists and their Readers.”

But O’Connor deals with these subjects as writer, not a professor, and her perspective on them is always fresh and down-to-earth and never pedantic. One of the most interesting essays deals with the prevalence in Southern fiction of the grotesque, which she defines as something “which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Why do oddballs so often turn up in the literature of the region? O’Connor responds: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Other comments on and quotations from Mystery and Manners appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, “Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing” and March 21, 2007 “Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction.” O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux, comments on the critics’ response to her work in the March 4, 2009, post “The Writer Is Insane.” The quote came from Brad Gooch’s new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, lucidly reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.

This is the third in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis.

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 4, 2009

‘The Writer Is Insane’ — Flannery O’Connor and Her Critics

'Wise Blood' was a commercial flop.

Just picked up Brad Gooch’s new Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30). After a few chapters, I agree with Jonathan Yardley, who wrote in his Washington Post review that “the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail.”

Good provides a context for the obtuseness of so much recent book reviewing in a report on the initial response to O’Connor, a major American writer of the 20th century. He writes of her first novel, Wise Blood, edited by Robert Giroux:

“‘I can tell you that from a publishing point of view Wise Blood was a flop,’ says Robert Giroux. ‘It got three or four bad reviews right off. Then a good one came that began to see something. But I was shocked at the stupidity of these, the lack of perception, or even the lack of having an open mind. The review in the New York Times Book Review was by a Southern writer. He was embarrassed later, too late. Another reviewer said that it’s a work of insanity, the writer is insane.’”

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

September 10, 2007

God Catches a Break in Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith’

Can you have a love affair with God after you take off your clerical collar?

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne, 272 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, a publisher sent me a study called The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives. I knew right away that I wanted to assign it for review: How many books have you read about those underappreciated pillars of so many congregations? But when I asked a minister’s wife to review the study, she said she couldn’t do it unless I let her write under a pseudonym – which most newspapers don’t allow — because in her position she couldn’t express her views freely. Which, of course, was exactly the point of the book.

We may know even less about the inner lives of the clergy than we do about those of their spouses. Like the minister’s wife I tried to recruit as a reviewer, the partners of spiritual leaders may believe they have a responsibility to keep silent on some issues. But they have no formal job description that requires it. The clergy do have a duty to protect confidentiality and use other forms of discretion, which helps to explain why we hear about their private lives mainly when a scandal erupts.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor opens a stained-glass window onto their lives in an engaging memoir that at times gives the impression that she either lacks self-awareness or isn’t free to describe events fully. Leaving Church tells of her years a parish minister in Atlanta and Clarkesville, Georgia, and her decision to become a religion professor after realizing that “feeding people was no longer feeding me.”

Brown Taylor says she once saw being a priest as similar to being the chief engineer at a nuclear power plant: “In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” Her book has many such lines that are clever rather than deep, or seemingly intended more to keep people awake during sermons than to provoke serious thought. You might also question the logic of her decision to become a professor if “feeding people” wasn’t feeding her, given that college teaching consists largely of feeding students.

But Brown Taylor has strengths that offset her inconsistencies. Chief among these is that she describes vividly the demands of the parish ministry without whining or sugarcoating the difficulties. “Like most clergy, I know how to post bond, lead an intervention, commit someone to a mental health care facility, hide a woman from her violent husband, visit an inmate on death row, and close the eyes on a dead body,” she writes. “One summer when a frightened murder witness showed up at the church door I even learned how to arrange an appointment with the district attorney for testimony before a grand jury.” After years in church leadership roles, I didn’t know that the clergy did half those things, and I’d bet most other lay people don’t know it, either. Part of what makes Leaving Church valuable is that it shows how much the clergy do for those poverty-line salaries that they get.

But this book does more than help to explain why so many clergy face burnout and need long vacations and sabbaticals just as professors do. Like Anne Lamott, Brown Taylor notices offbeat but telling details that suggest the tangy flavor of her part of the country. Not long after moving to Clarkesville, she saw a church sign that read: “Given Satan an inch and he will become your ruler.” What minister would want to tangle with parishioners who suspected them of giving that inch?

Coincidentally or not, Leaving Church has arrived when God is taking it on the chin. Biologist Richard Dawkins www.richarddawkins.net has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for months with The God Delusion, which says that the biblical Yahweh was “psychotic.” He shares space with journalist Christopher Hitchens www.hitchensweb.com, whose God Is Not Great contends that religion is “irrational.” Brown Taylor doesn’t try to argue with the atheists. Instead, in a quiet way, she suggests joys and pains of a life lived according to faith and does so well enough that you believe her when she says that, no matter what went wrong between her and the Church, “this is a love story.”

Best line: Like most clergy, Brown Taylor often listened to requests for money from people with hard-luck stories. She reports that when she said “no,” one petitioner took it as a challenge to try harder. The woman called her and said: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”

Worst line (tie): No. 1 Brown Taylor says in one paragraph that “we have romanticized” Native Americans, then tells us in the next that a Cherokee friend has “a noble brow,” as though the image of the “noble” Indian weren’t part of the romanticized stereotypes she rightly criticizes. No. 2 She says that “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” That we should be “fully human” is one of those fuzzy clichés that many of have heard often from the pulpit. What does it mean? “Fully human” as opposed to half-human and half-bull, like a minotaur? Brown Taylor uses the phrase partly to explain why she left the parish ministry to teach religion. What about the people who have passed up such career moves? Are they less than “fully human”?

Recommendation? Likely to appeal to many fans of Anne Lamott www.annelamott.com, though Brown Taylor isn’t as funny or forthcoming about many parts of her life. Also highly recommended to church book groups.

Published: May 2006 (hardcover) and April 2007 (paperback) www.barbarabrowntaylor.com and www.harpercollins.com. Brown Taylor is a columnist for the liberal magazine The Christian Century www.christiancentury.org. She teaches at Piedmont College www.piedmont.edu.

Furthermore: Leaving Church won the Best General Interest Book award from the Association of Theological Booksellers www.associationoftheologicalbooksellers.org. For information on The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives, click on this link www.lizaleshire.com and then on “Liz’s Books.”

Consider reading also: Michael Lindvall’s The Good News From North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (Crossroads, $16.95), a down-to-earth book of stories about the life of a Presbyterian minister in Minnesota. This book reads like a collection of autobiographical essays, though billed as a novel by its author, now the pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church www.brickchurch.org in New York City.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She is a former associate lay leader of Park Avenue Methodist Church in Manhattan and often speaks to local or national religious groups on topics such as faith in fiction.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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