One-Minute Book Reviews

July 19, 2009

‘Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners’ — ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Etiquette

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared on Nov. 27, 2006, while I'm on a brief semi-vacation.]

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Published: October 2006

Janice Harayda wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of a manners about a bride who tries to find solace in Jane Austen as her over-the-top wedding approaches.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 13, 2008

Is It Time to Say ‘No, Thank You’ to Children’s Books About Manners by Mo Willems, Whoopi Goldberg and Others?

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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Picture books about politeness don’t always please

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! By Mo Willems. Hyperion, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Why are so many children’s books about manners so rude? With a wedding on my calendar this weekend, I looked into several high-profile entries in the field. And I can’t recommend any of the books wholeheartedly except for the gifted Diane Goode’s Mind Your Manners!, which I reviewed a while back.

John Bemelmans Marciano trades on the fame of his grandfather’s Madeline in Madeline Says Merci (Viking, 2001), but he falls far short of the quality of the original in this book of derivative art and painfully strained poetry about being polite. Whoopi Goldberg’s Whoopi’s Big Book of Manners (Hyperion, 2006) has garish pictures by Alexander “Olo” Sroczynski and a muddled text. (Each page describes a breach of manners that’s worse than the one that preceded it — not a bad concept, except that the book says, for example, that speaking with food in your mouth is worse that not saying you’re sorry if you do something bad.) The biggest disappointment comes from Mo Willems, whose Knuffle Bunny has helped to make him one of America’s most popular children’s authors.

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! is the literary equivalent of a loud, messy person who sits next to you on the bus and drops crumbs on your seat. Your three-year-old may love the loud, messy person and want to lick the crumbs off the arm rests. But is this, dear parent, behavior you wish to encourage?

Willems introduces four basic terms – “Please,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” and “Excuse Me” – in this sequel to his apparently deathless TiME to PEE! (“a National Parenting Publications Gold Medalist”). As in his book about toilet-training, Willems encloses his text in flags, signs, balloons, masts or other frames hoisted by mice who are so frenetic, they appear to have the rodent counterpart of ADHD.

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! is a how-to book, so instead of telling a story, it gives advice such as: “If you ever really want something, / really, really want something, / don’t grab it! / Go ask a big person / and please say ‘Please’!” This didactic purpose isn’t a problem in itself, because there are many good instructional books for the very young.

But the format sets up other problems. Children often begin learning about manners at age two or younger. A mother on Amazon says she used TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! with an 18-month-old. But there’s a board game in the back of this book with a spinner that could detach, a potential choking hazard. So the publisher advises against giving the book to children under age 3.

Yet the advice may be too simple for children over the age of 3. The book doesn’t mention “You’re welcome,” for example. And the erratic capitalization and punctuation could confuse a child who is just starting to learn about words and letters. As Willems might put it, it’s TiME to SAY “NO, THANK YOU”!

Best line/picture: The back cover. It says “Thank you!” on two flags held by a mouse, a much less manic image than many others in the book.

Worst line/picture: The capitalization of the title on the front cover. Then there’s, “There are all kinds of reasons to say ‘Please’ … When you want a toy, or to borrow someone else’s truck,” as though a truck were not a toy.

Consider reading instead: Diane Goode’s Mind Your Manners! (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005), a witty sendup of a 19th-century etiquette primer www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.This picture book by a Caldecott Honor artist is better than the others in this review and speaks to a broader age range web.mac.com/goodedog/Diane_Goode/dianegoode.com.html.

Published: June 2005 www.mowillems.com

Furthermore: Willems wrote Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a Caldecott Honor Book, and Knuffle Bunny www.hyperionchildrensbooks.com/board/displayBook.asp?id=1407. I haven’t read either and would welcome comments from anyone who has and could compare them to TiME to SAY “PLEASE”!, which may be inferior to Willems’s other books.

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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 8, 2008

Remembering When Talking About Your Children Was Taboo at Dinner Parties – Phyllis Theroux’s ‘Peripheral Visions’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:47 pm
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I came across this startling line while rereading Phyllis Theroux’s, Peripheral Visions (Morrow, 1982), one of best essay collections of the 1980s:

“There’s no quicker route to poor opinion than to be at a dinner party and say brightly at table, ‘Guess what our Jeremy said today?’ Children are taboo at dinner parties … “

Theroux wrote those words while living in Washington, D.C., where the table talk is sometimes as carefully choreographed as the second act of Swan Lake. But her comment suggests how tolerant of parental boasting our culture has become since her book appeared. When was the last time you went to a dinner party and didn’t hear a parent say, in effect, “Guess what our Jeremy said today?”

Credit: Photo from the site for Theroux’s Nightwriters seminars and retreats for writers www.nightwriters.com. The next seminar will take place in Sonoma County May 4–9, 2008. I have ‘t attended one of these programs. But Theroux is a fine, highly respected writer who seems to keep the size of her seminars small enough that you’ll get personal attention. And the price isn’t much higher than for a comparable number of nights in a good hotel. I’d check out her site if you’re looking for a writers’ retreat with a difference.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 4, 2007

No Salute for the Cover of ‘Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

One of the delights of the syndicated Miss Manners etiquette column is that it has always had a distinctive voice – a bit arch and Victorian yet also witty and commonsensical. You would never know it from the covers of some of its companion books.

Martin’s advice finds a deft balance between the ideals of two eras – the years before and after the upheavals of the 1960s, which swept away many traditional etiquette rules. You see that trait clearly in the cover of Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium (Fireside, 1990), which shows of a photo of a fountain pen next to a personal digital assistant. The title floats above them in the John Hancock-ish script that is Martin’s trademark. And the harmonious coexistence of the quasi-archaic font and sleek PDA reflects her style perfectly.

You can’t say that for the cover of the more recent Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say (Crown, 1998), part of her “Basic Training” series. The regimental stripes seem intended to carry out the mild joke in the title – Martin as a drill sergeant sending you to the boot camp. This is too clever and clashes with her tone. Martin isn’t the John Wayne of etiquette so much as its strict but benevolent headmistress. Worse, the colors of the cover – especially that stop-sign yellow – are shrill, which she isn’t. And on a lunch-hour dash through Borders, who would stop to read a nine-line subtitle in white-on-navy-blue reverse type?

Why does a writer with such a steady voice come across on her covers as a teenager who doesn’t know whether she wants to wear a lemon-meringue prom dress or a flak jacket to the party? Well into her career as an author, Martin moved from Simon & Schuster to the Crown imprint of Random House, which gave her a new look. The mismatch may have extended beyond her covers. Martin’s latest book, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, written with Gloria Kamen, was published by Norton www.wwnorton.com.

If you’re interested in book covers, check out Rekya’s Bookshelf www.rekya.blogspot.com, a site that focuses book design. It has a great blogroll with links to many good book-design sites and designers’ portfolios.

The review of Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say appeared on Nov. 21, 2007, before a second post on Cyber Hymnal that appeared the same day. To read it, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/.

All cover reviews on this site consider not just aesthetics but how well the cover reflects the contents of the book. That’s why the cover reviews don’t appear until after the review has been posted (or, if I have only a line or two to say, in the section of extra material that follows the review, not in the body of the review). These reviews aren’t just about design but about truth in publishing.

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

November 29, 2007

Why Do We Need Etiquette Books When the Old Rules of Etiquette Are Disappearing? Quote of the Day (Judith Martin/Miss Manners)

Do books about manners serve a purpose in an age without manners? Is etiquette about more than using a fish fork properly? Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column, suggests an answer:

“You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you’re trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you….There are plenty of people who say, ‘We don’t care about etiquette, but we can’t stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don’t want him around!’ Etiquette doesn’t have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behavior is unbearable.”

Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners syndicated advice column, in a 1995 interview with Virginia Shea, as quoted by Wikipedia www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin. The picture shows fish fork from Wikipedia www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fork.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 21, 2007

What to Say When Uncle Elmer Burps at Thanksgiving Dinner – And Other Holiday Dilemmas Resolved by Judith Martin, Miss Manners

The syndicated etiquette columnist tells how to deflect rudeness without being rude

Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say. By Judith Martin. Crown, 179 pp., $17.

By Janice Harayda

Judith Martin has written more than a dozen etiquette books under her nom de guerre of Miss Manners, but this is the one you need this week. The Right Thing to Say is a brisk field manual for anyone who wonders how to parry to all those rude questions and insensitive remarks that can occur in any season but peak at events like Thanksgiving dinner. As in her syndicated column, Miss Manners typically offers ideas that are witty, apt and polite, all dispensed in a question-and-answer format.

Are you single and wondering what to say to say when Cousin Herman asks you why you haven’t married? Miss Manners suggests, “Oh, Cousin Herman, you know I’m waiting for someone just like you.” Would you like to know how to silence an aunt who tells you that you’ve gained weight or gone gray? Miss Manners recommends, “Oh, thank you; how kind of you to notice.” Or perhaps you’re pregnant again and have heard too many comments like, “I’m glad it’s you and not me!” Miss Manners advises you to try, “I’m sure you mean to wish us the best.” And if you don’t know what to say when Uncle Elmer says “Excuse me” after burping, she offers the comforting: “No reply is appropriate.”

Miss Manners’s answers are entertaining even if you haven’t weathered the insults heaved at her correspondents. And if you get through Thanksgiving needing her advice, just wait. The office Christmas party is coming up.

Best line: “Why would anyone say ‘Congratulations’ to a couple who has just announced an engagement or the expected birth of a child? Congratulating people is what is now done at funerals. Anyone who has suffered a loss can expect to be told: ‘It’s really a blessing, you know’ … Those who are most skillful at comforting the bereaved with such congratulatory statements are able to go for a second round, Miss Manners has observed. When they have elicited a fresh outburst of woe, they congratulate the mourners again, this time for ‘dealing with’ or ‘working through’ their grief, or tell them what stage of grief they are at, as if grief were a subway stop. Thus they have the enormous satisfaction of having done something for their friends. Driven them to tears.”

Worst line: None, but the structure of the book is confusing. Instead of being grouped together, for example, related questions about dating and marriage appear on pages 79 and 109. And the index is so inconsistent, it’s all but useless.

Published: May 1998 www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin

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

November 27, 2006

Josephine Ross on Jane Austen’s View of Manners

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Recommended if … you’re looking for an ideal gift for an Austen fan.

Published: October 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book-review blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels.

 

 

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