One-Minute Book Reviews

July 6, 2009

‘As Long As the People of Mississippi Can Stagger to the Polls, They’ll Vote Dry’ — Literary Wit From ‘North Toward Home’

Filed under: Biography,Joke of the Day,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 pm
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How do you revitalize an old joke you need to tell one to make a point in an essay, speech or book? Willie Morris shows one way to do it his wonderful memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home, which deals in part with growing up in Mississippi before the sale of liquor became legal in the state in 1966.

Here’s how Morris handles the chestnut “As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry” (which has been said about many places besides his native state):

“Mississippi was a dry state, one of the last in America, but its dryness was merely academic, a gesture to the preachers and the churches. My father would say that the only difference between Mississippi and its neighbor Tennessee, which was wet, was that in Tennessee a man could not buy liquor on Sunday. The Mississippi bootleggers, who theoretically operated ‘grocery stores,’ with ten or twelve cans or sardines and a few boxes of crackers for sale, stayed open at all hours, and would sell to anyone regardless of age or race. …

“Every so often there would be a vote to determine whether liquor should be made legal. Then, for weeks before, the town would be filled with feverish campaign activity. People would quote the old saying, ‘As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry.’ A handful of people should come right out and say that liquor should be made legal, so that the bootleggers and the sheriffs would not be able to make all the money …”

A review of North Toward Home appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 2, 2009.

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June 28, 2009

The Danger of Rereading Your Favorite Books — Quote of the Day / Edward M. Yoder, Jr.

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:34 pm
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A perceptive comment by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. in the preface to the paperback edition of North Toward Home (Vintage, 1967), Willie Morris’s memoir of his Mississippi boyhood and later work as editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine in New York:

“Rereading a special book is risky, like a rendezvous with a long-unseen old friend. It is a relief to find the remembered intimacy unwarped by time.”

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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
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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.

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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.

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April 10, 2009

Winston Groom’s ‘Vicksburg, 1863′ — The Creator of Forrest Gump Reconsiders a Pivotal Moment in the Civil War

Filed under: History,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:08 am
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Just back from a great talk by Winston Groom at a signing for his new nonfiction book, Vicksburg, 1863 (Knopf, 496 pp., $30). I didn’t take notes because a friend and I stopped by on our way to a Maundy Thursday service and planned to listen for just a few minutes. But the talk was so captivating we stayed for all of it and just made it to the church on time.

A few points stood out: Gettysburg is better known than Vicksburg and often viewed as more important to the Civil War. But by dint of its strategic location on the Mississippi, Vicksburg had more geographic value. Two years of bloodshed might have been avoided if the South had offered the North terms for ending the war as catastrophe loomed. After its besieged forces surrendered on July 4, 1863, the day after Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July for a century.

Groom’s talk was full of lively details about how the residents of the Vicksburg tried to stay alive while trapped. Some ate mule meat or eluded artillery fire by digging caves – later intentionally destroyed — that might held fascinating clues to how people survived the devastation of 1863.

If you’d like to know more, an excerpt from the book appears on the Knopf site. The publisher also has posted a quote from a review by John Sledge, the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register, who “There have been many books about Vicksburg, but none better than this.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

March 6, 2009

Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ — Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 pm
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I’ll have a post next week on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling first novel, The Help, about an Ole Miss graduate who returns to her native Jackson, Mississippi, and finds herself pained by how her young friends treat their black maids. A short item I wrote about a signing for the book appears on GalleyCat today. Emily Bell photo of Kathryn Stockett, seated, with Jennifer Myrick at Page & Palette Books.

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