One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

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

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

November 2, 2007

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: March 2007 www.simonsayskids.com

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

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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