One-Minute Book Reviews

June 6, 2013

The Bagpipes of D-Day – ‘Highland Laddie’ at Sword Beach

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:27 pm
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Like great novelists, great war correspondents know that people make the story. One who never forgot it was Cornelius Ryan, the Dublin-born reporter and author of the classic account of the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster, 1959).

Ryan’s book is less about military tactics and strategy than about their effect on people — from the German high command to a French schoolmistress and the American paratrooper who tumbled into her garden just after midnight on June 6, 1944. One of the most remarkable characters in The Longest Day is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, the Scottish brigade commander who, with his bagpiper and fellow commandos, went ashore Sword Beach. This paragraph from the book describes the scene:

“As the commandos touched down on Sword, Lord Lovat’s piper, William Millin, plunged off his landing craft into water up to his armpits. He could see smoke piling up from the beach ahead and hear the crump of exploding mortar shells. As Millin floundered toward shore, Lovat shouted at him, ‘Give us “Highland Laddie,” man!’ Waist-deep in water, Millin put his mouthpiece to his lips and splashed through the surf, the pipes keening crazily. At the water’s edge, oblivious to the gunfire, he halted and, parading up and down the beach, piped the commandos ashore. The men streamed past him, and mingling with the whine of bullets and the screams of shells came the wild skirl of the pipes as Millin now played, ‘The Road to the Isles.’ ‘That’s the stuff, Jock,’ yelled a commando. Said another, ‘Get down, you mad bugger.’”

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

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

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

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

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

October 28, 2009

John Keegan’s ‘The American Civil War’ — Was the Refusal to Allow the Confederate States to Secede the First Overt Act of American Imperialism?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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I admire the work of John Keegan, perhaps the finest living military historian, and have mentioned his Winston Churchill (Viking, 2002) and his foreword to a recent edition of John Buchan’s classic spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin, 2008). But I may not be able to review his new The American Civil War: A Military History, a book likely to rank high on many holiday wish lists.

So I’d like to quote from the most interesting review I’ve read of the book, written the historian Robert Stewart for the Spectator, and encourage you to read the rest if you’re debating whether to add it to your own list:

“Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and unnecessary,’ the American Civil War was cruel and necessary. (What constitutes an uncruel war is not explained.) Necessary both sides deemed it. At the outset volunteers came forward in such numbers that equipping them and finding capable officers to lead them proved nearly beyond both the Union and the Confederacy. Cruel it certainly was, one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, though two-thirds of its casualties succumbed, not to gunfire, but to disease (much of it caused by bad cooking). …

“Keegan tells an old story in ample, uncomplicated prose and the scale of the book is well judged, sufficient to allow for richness of detail and depth of analysis without overhwhelming the reader. Occasionally words seem to get the better of him. Does it make sense to say that ‘the purpose’ of the war was ‘to inflict suffering on the American imagination,’ that ‘the whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension’? Footnotes are so spasmodic that the criteria for citing sources are impossible to discern. Keegan has to be taken for the most part, on trust. But his command of the war’s geography, his thorough understanding of military organization and his deep humanity, all nourished by a lifetime’s immersion in military history, imbue his account with the authority that we have come to expect from him.”

You can read an excerpt from The American Civil War on the Knopf site.

July 1, 2009

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

Filed under: Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: May 2009

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2009

More of My Favorite Books About the South

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:06 am
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In my posts this week on Southern literature, I’ve avoided warhorses and focused on underappreciated works (excluding poetry, which deserves its own series). Among the books I like that didn’t make the cut because they are so well known or because I’ve written about them before on this site: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. What are your favorites?

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 30, 2009

Could the Swine Flu Pandemic Have Two Waves? Quote of the Day From ‘Flu,’ Gina Kolata’s Account of the 1918 Pandemic

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:22 pm
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Could the latest swine flu outbreak be the first of two waves of the disease? And could the second be deadlier than the one that has just struck? Few medical experts are discussing the possibility publicly. But you might wonder after reading Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, by Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times. Kolata writes:

“No one knows for sure where the 1918 flu came from or how it turned into such a killer strain. All that is known is that it began as an ordinary flu but then it changed. It infected people in the spring of 1918, sickening its victims for about three days with chills and fever, but rarely killing them. Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut.

“In retrospect, medical experts talk of the two waves of the 1918 flu. The first was banal, easily forgotten. No one mentioned plagues or germ warfare when the influenza epidemic first arrived. But when it came back, in the second wave, it had turned into something monstrous, bearing little resemblance to what is ordinarily thought of as the flu.”

April 28, 2009

Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 am
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How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.

Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:

“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”

Gilpin Faust adds:

“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..

“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”

You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.

© 2009 Janice Harayda

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

April 11, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prizes to Be Announced on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:17 pm
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The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.

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