One-Minute Book Reviews

June 2, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #2: Willie Morris’s Memoir, ‘North Toward Home’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:40 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A gifted writer maps his journey from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to the top position at Harper’s in New York

North Toward Home. By Willie Morris. Introduction by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. Vintage, 464 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

No personal chronicle “tells more poignantly, comically and beautifully just what it is to be an American and Southerner in our time” than North Toward Home, the Virginia-born novelist William Styron once wrote. Styron knew the literature of his region far better than I, but by my lights, he was right about this wonderful memoir by the Mississippian who became the youngest editor-in-chief of Harper’s.

Willie Morris admired his distinguished ancestors, such as Cowles Meade, the first acting territorial governor of his state “who tried unsuccessfully to catch up with Aaron Burr when Burr took off down the Mississippi River on his curious scheme to conquer the territories belonging to Spain.” But Morris doesn’t re-embalm his forebears. Instead he shows how he tried to find his own way, first in Yazoo City, then at the University of Texas, and finally in Manhattan.

Critics recognized the greatness of North Toward Home on its first publication in 1967, but the dreariness of so many recent memories has thrown its virtues into higher relief. Perhaps more than any autobiography of the mid-20th century, this modern classic depicts vibrantly the intersection of Southern and Northern influences in the life of a gifted writer who cared passionately about both.

This is the second in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays on life, literature, and peacocks, Mystery and Manners.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 1, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #1 – Eudora Welty’s Comic Novella, ‘The Ponder Heart’

A kind-hearted uncle is put on trial for murder in a comic novella that includes some of the most entertaining courtroom scenes in American literature

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 168 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Jane Austen told a would-be novelist that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” And much of her comedy turns on the arrival of an outsider in such a group – most famously, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s entrance into the world of the Bennets, Bingleys and Lucases in Pride and Prejudice.

In that sense, The Ponder Heart is Eudora Welty’s most Austenian book. The wonderfully named Ponders and Clanahans and Sistrunks have held sway in Clay, Mississippi, for generations. Then a newcomer turns up: 17-year-old Bonnie Dee Peacock, who is “no bigger than a minute” and promptly marries Uncle Daniel Ponder, a rich, kind and mentally slow man whose greatest happiness lies in giving things away. When Bonnie departs as suddenly as she arrived, Uncle Daniel finds himself on trial for murder in one of the most entertaining courtroom dramas in American literature.

First published in The New Yorker in 1953, The Ponder Heart is a light-hearted and at times farcical social comedy that takes the form of a monologue by the endearingly self-assured Edna Earle Ponder, the proprietor of the faded Beulah Hotel in Clay, Mississippi. Edna says, “It’s always taken a lot out of me, being smart,” and the appeal of her tale lies partly in her astute, matter-of-fact send-ups of her fellow Mississippians.

“The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day die,” Edna says.

Everything about that sentence is perfect: its deadpan wit, its vivid images, its distinctive syntax (such as the dropping of the “who” from the phrase, “the kind of people keep”). And it suggests why many critics believe that Welty’s superb ear for the speech of many Southern groups – men and women, blacks and whites, city and country folk – reaches a high point in The Ponder Heart.

But Welty never makes dialect an end in itself, as so many novelists do. She always uses it to make a larger point that is as disarmingly frank and surprising as her language. Edna Earle suggests one of the themes of The Ponder Heart explaining why Uncle Daniel keeps finding reason come into town from the big Ponder house out in the country. “There’s something that’s better to have than love,” she says, “and if you want me to, I’ll tell you what it is – that’s company.”

This is the first in a series of daily posts about Southern literature. Tomorrow: Willie Morris’s memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: