One-Minute Book Reviews

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

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

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 13, 2012

‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ – The True Story of an Eccentric Headmaster and His Beloved English Boys’ School

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
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A captivating portrait of “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse” 

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School. By Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes. Illustrations by Kath Walker. Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A nun once stuffed young Bruce Springsteen into a garbage can because, a biographer reports, “that’s where you belong.” Such incidents abound in books about American Catholic education in the middle decades of the 20th century and tend to turn them into horror stories or bleak comedies of errors that wrest humor from pain.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is something rare: a book about a Catholic school that is at heart a love story. This captivating history of St Philip’s in South Kensington has its share of anecdotes that might horrify anyone unfamiliar with how common such episodes once were at English boys’ schools – pants-down beatings with a slipper, meals of Spam and watery mashed potatoes that all children had to eat, and cricket games played in frigid weather in just a shirt and itchy wool shorts, with underpants forbidden. The book also offers ample hilarity in its teachers’ efforts to control what a former student called “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse.”

But the eccentric founding headmaster and staff of St Philip’s loved their charges in a way that, to judge by the sparkling anecdotes gathered by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, was largely reciprocated. Richard Tibbits and his “ragbag of untrained teachers” had a quality that rarely surfaces in books about American parochial schools: They were human. American Catholic students of his era were taught mainly by nuns whose flesh-and-blood realities remained a perpetual source of mystery. It was far from uncommon for young children to ask their parents, on first glimpsing their new teachers in black habits and stiff white wimples, “Do nuns go to the bathroom?”

No one would have been likely to ask that question about Tibbits, who resembled “a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig” and was known for “extreme strictness” mixed with “the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls.” Nor would anyone have asked it about his wife, who chain-smoked Benson & Hedges as she presided over the ground-floor corridor in a nylon housecoat.

The Tibbitses attracted teachers with similar quirks. A retired Cockney customs officer, flush with his wife’s money, taught math and boasted, “I could buy the whole lot of you out.” A beautiful Polish princess arrived as a maternity-leave replacement for one of the few women on hand and fell in love with the geography instructor. John Tregear, the French teacher, “wore black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers.” He leaps to immortality in one of the witty line drawings by Kath Walker that add as much charm to this book as Arthur Watts’s do to E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.

Richard Tibbits had founded St Philip’s in 1934 as an academy for the 7-to-13-year-old sons of middle and upper class Catholics, many of whom attended Mass at the Brompton Oratory, and his teaching methods suited that group. As late as the mid-1960s, the school had no classes in biology or chemistry because, Tibbits said, “Gentlemen do not study science.” When St Philip’s finally dipped its toe into such fields, its approach might have struck some people as curious – students, for example, learned to make gunpowder. The school had crucifixes and pictures of the Pope on the walls, but it welcomed doubters with a warmth rare in American Catholic schools of its era, where many jokes involved variations on the words “Protestant” and “prostitute.”

For all of this, St Philip’s had high educational and spiritual standards that boys strived to uphold. One former student told Maxtone Graham that at the age of seven he was reading Treasure Island: “You were expected to be good at drawing, good at reading, interested in foreign lands.” The high-achieving the families associated with the school suggest that students met those standards: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes attended St Philip’s, the biographer Antonia Fraser sent her son, Orlando, there, and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mother taught singing. Maxtone Graham has rewarded the trust of those who spoke with her by writing a history distinguished by the perfection of its tone: She writes in the first person, so that her story reads like a memoir, but keeps her focus on St Philip’s. In its casual tone, her book resembles many English schoolboy stories less than Diana Athill’s recent memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End. Mr Tibbit’s Catholic School might have been called Somewhere Towards the End of the Reign of Richard Tibbits.

St Philip’s began to change after Tibbits’s died in 1967, and the process sped up in the 1980s as a new generation of working mothers dared to suggest improvements the old regime would not have tolerated, such as the purchase of a computer. But the fearless spirit of the school endures in its administrators’ willingness to display on its website this melodious hymn to its idiosyncrasies, a book that shows how much American and other schools lose when they impose enough restrictions to drive away the most gifted and creative teachers. Ninety percent of the teachers at St Philip’s were “certifiable,” the historian  and former student Adam Zamoyski admits. “They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.”

Best line: All. An example: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Worst line: None. But a few more details on some would have been welcome. The book notes, for example, that Antonia Fraser was a school mother but not whether she sent all her sons there or just one.

Publication date: 2011

Learn more about the book on the publisher’s websiteMr Tibbits’s Catholic School is available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York. Allison Pearson wrote about the book in the Telegraph.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs. Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

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

February 26, 2011

Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ — A London Cleaning Woman Pursues Her Dream of a Dior Dress

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.

Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity.  A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.

One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.

When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.

All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?

The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:

“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.

“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”

The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.

Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”

Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).

Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.

About the author: Gallico also wrote The Snow Goose (Knopf, 1941 and 2007), named the novel most deserving of rediscovery in a 2009 BBC contest.

Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).

If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

December 17, 2009

A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story — ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander.

This review first appeared on this site on Dec. 19, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

May 8, 2009

May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day in London — When Searchlights Flashed a ‘V’ for Victory in Morse Code Across the Sky

Filed under: History,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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“At the stroke of midnight, ships in Southampton docks sounded their horns and a searchlight flashed out the letter ‘V,’ for ‘victory,’ in Morse code across the sky.”

A national outpouring of joy erupted in England on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day. Historian David Stafford describes the scene in London after the German surrender in his Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II (Little, Brown, 2007), an account of the final weeks of World War II and its immediate aftermath in Europe:

“There were celebrations, of course. Across Britain they began as soon as news of the surrender leaked out. Flags appeared in windows, shops shut down, and people poured onto the streets. At the stroke of midnight, ships in Southampton docks sounded their horns and a searchlight flashed out the letter ‘V,’ for ‘victory,’ in Morse code across the sky. By midday, huge crowds had gathered in central London, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and other churches were packed with worshippers. At three o’clock, Churchill broadcast to the nation and the Empire from his study at 10 Downing Street, declaring the end of the war and finishing with the exhortation: ‘Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!’ Then, standing on the front seat of an open car and giving the victory sign, he was driven slowly through a dense and cheering crowd to the Houses of Parliament, where he repeated his statement to the Commons. When it was over, the crowd outside who heard it over loudspeakers sang the national anthem.”

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

April 20, 2009

A Film Critic Remembers Growing Up With Unexploded Bombs in Postwar London – David Thomson’s ‘Try to Tell the Story’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:11 am
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Looking back on life with a father who kept secrets from his English family

Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Film critic David Thomson grew up in a London infested with unexploded bombs, real and symbolic. The real ones landed intact during the Blitz or later in World War II. The symbolic ones began to fall when Thomson’s father, on learning that his wife was pregnant, left home and from then on returned to the family’s South London home only on weekends to see his son. This arrangement was less bizarre than some described in recent memoirs. What made it unusual was that when Kenneth Thomson returned for his weekly visits, he took young son on sports and other outings without ever acknowledging that he had been away.

In this memoir of his first 18 years, David Thomson sorts out the effects of the buried truth with tact and forbearance. Try to Tell the Story has banal descriptions of cricket matches: “The day we were there we saw Hutton score a century backed by Graveney against Lindwall and Miller, but by the end of the match, after [Australian] centuries from Hassett and Miller, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had to make a heroic stand against England against defeat.” But the book shows that Thomson developed early a fine critical sensibility both for films such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and for moviegoing in general. When Thomson wondered how movies got onto theater screens, his father pointed to light from a projection booth. “In those days that beam of light was thick with writhing smoke,” he writes, “since everyone at the movies smoked.”

Best line: “The first day I arrived in America there had been a flood in Maine, a summer flood. It was on the evening news and the Boston reporter, all quickfire and soft soap, had lined up an elderly Maine fellow to see if he had ever seen anything like this before. ‘Well, Mr. Parsons,’ he said. ‘I understand you’ve lived all your life in Maine.’ And the old-time said, ‘Not yet.’”

Worst line: “… we had food rationing for years – into the 1950s, I remember.” Relying on memory for that date is lazy writing. Food rationing ended in England in 1954 and was such a significant event that people burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square. Thomson could have found the date in a few minutes of online searching.

If you like this book, you may also like: Paula Fox’s memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Try to Tell the Story. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Thomson lives in San Francisco. He also wrote Nicole Kidman and “Have You Seen ….?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.

Read an excerpt from Try to Tell the Story.

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

June 12, 2008

New British Library Lets You Check Out a Person Instead of a Book

Filed under: Current Events,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:49 am
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But will you respect yourself in the morning if you take them to bed with you?

A new London “library” called the Living Library lets you check out a person instead of a book. David Baker writes in the Times Online:

“The idea, which comes from Scandinavia, is simple: instead of books, readers can come to the library and borrow a person for a 30-minute chat. The human ‘books’ on offer vary from event to event but always include a healthy cross-section of stereotypes. Last weekend, the small but richly diverse list included Police Officer, Vegan, Male Nanny and Lifelong Activist as well as Person with Mental Health Difficulties and Young Person Excluded from School.”

Read more about it here: women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article3790377.ece

Thanks to The Librarian Edge on del.icio.us del.icio.us/TheLibrarianEdge for this one.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 28, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear’s Latest Maisie Dobbs Mystery, ‘An Incomplete Revenge,’ Coming This Week

Filed under: Historical Novels,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm
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Few suspense novelists have won more praise recently than Jaqueline Winspear has earned for her historical mysteries about Maisie Dobbs, a World War I nurse-turned-private investigator in London. Winspear has won Alex, Agatha and Macavity Awards for books in the series, which began with Maisie Dobbs and continues with the just-published fifth installment, An Incomplete Revenge. Should you consider giving one of them as a Mother’s Day gift to someone who loves mysteries or historical novels? Check back later this week for a review. Click here to read or listen to an excerpt or find a reading group guide us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 15, 2007

Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’: How Two Men Helped to End a Fearsome Epidemic

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:27 am
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The fascinating true story of a doctor and clergyman who defied the establishment view that cholera was an airborne – not waterborne — disease

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. Riverhead, 299 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Did you know that the doctor who gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria during childbirth also helped to end a cholera epidemic? I didn’t. And details like this abound in Steven Johnson’s fascinating history of how two men took on the medical establishment after cholera erupted in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map reads at times like a cross between The Hot Zone with The Professor and the Madman, a medical horror story set in a gaslit city that bred disease and superstition. Johnson begins, unpromisingly, with a dozen pages on the difficulty of human waste disposal in a metropolis that had two million residents. But he quickly gets on top of his story of an epidemic that began when a mother tossed out a slop bucket in which she had soaked a sick baby’s diapers. From then on his book moves swiftly until he tries in the last chapter to extrapolate from cholera to modern threats such as suicide bombers and nuclear winter. This polemical leap is ultimately much less persuasive than what has come before it – a well-told tale of how a doctor and an Anglican curate changed the view of one of the world’s most feared diseases.

Best line: “At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks – out of a population that was a quarter of the size of modern New York. Imagine the terror and panic if a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period. Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.”

Worst line: Any line that shows Johnson’s promiscuous use of the word “irony,” which he turns into a one-size-fits-all substitute for “sadly,” “oddly,” “coincidentally” or “paradoxically.” For example: “The sad irony of his argument for the waterborne theory of cholera is that he had all the primary medical explanations in place by the winter of 1848–1849, and yet they fell on deaf ears for almost a decade.” That is a sad fact, not a sad “irony.” Would you write, “The sad irony of Jan Harayda’s post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level is that she did this on November 16, 2006, and yet it fell on deaf ears for almost five months and Albom continued to sell books at a frightening rate”?

Recommended if … you like popular history, especially books about the history of science or medicine, such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

Furthermore: Johnson also wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You.

Editor: Sean McDonald

Published: October 2006

Links: www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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