One-Minute Book Reviews

September 29, 2009

Is ‘The Lost Symbol’ Is ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?

Crosses and other religious symbols help to drive the plot of The Lost Symbol. Are the images used in an offensive way? Philip Hensher writes in a review of The Lost Symbol in the Spectator:

“The plot, naturally, is all to do with the concealment of wisdom within sacred texts, and as it unfolds, it becomes first moronic and then somewhat offensive. Moronic, because it seems to believe that wisdom and knowledge are things which are acquired by placing a bit of gold on top of a bit of stone, and then wiping off some wax. Brown’s heroes remind me of Hardy’s Jude, who thought that you could understand Greek if you cracked a simple code in the dons’ safekeeping:

“Don’t you see? These [Biblical phrases] are code words, Robert. ‘Temple’ is code for body. ‘Heaven’ is code for mind. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is your spine. And ‘Manna’ is this rare brain secretion.

“Not just moronic, but offensive, because the whole historical point of Christianity was that it celebrated its rites entirely openly, unlike any other religion to that point. The huge enlightenment to come, trailed by Brown, doesn’t convince, because he can’t really imagine what it would be, apart from some previously secret beliefs being made generally available. What that would mean, apart from people saying ‘With my temple, I thee worship’ at wedding ceremonies, Brown cannot limn.

“This is taking a bit of fluff all too seriously, but tales of conspiracy are worrying when they become as massively popular as Brown’s stories have done. God knows how many of his readers think there might be some truth in any of this. But even if there were none, it is depressing to see the point to which the bestseller as a form has sunk. Vintage have recently reissued all of Nevil Shute, and to read a hugely popular book of 50 years ago next to The Lost Symbol is to witness a painful decline in quality and sheer class. A novelist like Brown would never risk an extended set-piece like the motor race in On the Beach, or the details of capital investment in A Town Called Alice. Or, come to that, the thrillingly extended card game in the first part of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. These are novels which, though aiming at popularity, respected their readers and were possessed of a decent level of craft. Nowadays, we are reduced in our thrill-seeking endeavours to listening to Dan Brown, whose idea of giving a reader a good time is droning:

“Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings.”

July 9, 2009

Joke of the Day — More Literary Wit From ‘Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind’

Ann B. Ross writes in her comic novel Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (HarperPerennial, 273 pp., $13.95, paperback):

“I knew that most of the church members would take whatever position Pastor Ledbetter did. A congregation wasn’t called a flock for nothing.”

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February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 – Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 comes from Jodi Picoult’s novel Change of Heart (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95):

“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

and

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”

Not that Picoult isn’t a really popular novelist – great sales, a “terrific writer” in Stephen King’s view. But with dorky lines like these (and a plot to go with them), where’s the proof? Didn’t that “yadda yadda yadda” start to sound old before Seinfeld went off the air?

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

February 4, 2009

The Book That Started the Backlash Against Self-Esteem as a Cure-All for Children’s Woes – William Damon’s ‘Greater Expectations’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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Greater Expectations was one of the three or four best books about children that I reviewed in my 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and it’s the one I’ve recommended most often to parents. This trailblazing indictment of many popular educational theories was among the earliest to expose the myth that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher achievement in school and elsewhere.

The arguments in Greater Expectations: Nurturing the Moral Child (Free Press, 304 pp., $20.95) are powerful in their own right. They have all the more force because they come from one of the nation’s most distinguished educators: William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor-in-chief of the latest edition of The Handbook of Child Psychology.

Damon maintains that something has gone badly wrong in “the passing of essential standards between the generations.” Children at all levels of society grow up in an unwholesome atmosphere that goes beyond drugs, violence and similar woes: It involves a focus on the self and a devaluation of spirituality and faith. Damon blames part of this on influential childrearing experts such as David Elkind and Penelope Leach, whose approaches may encourage adults to infantilize children on the pretext of protecting them.

One of the Damon’s main contributions is that he documents painstakingly the lack of a connection between high self-esteem and high-achievement. Researchers have tried many times to link the two but “have not even provided convincing correlational data,” let alone causal links. Quite the opposite: High-self esteem doesn’t lead to high achievement but high achievement may increase self-esteem. Developing either, Damon says, is a slow process:

“There are no easy shortcuts to this. The child cannot be quickly inoculated with self-confidence through facile phrases such as ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m terrific.’”

If there’s no evidence that self-esteem fosters academic success, why have school systems thrown so much money at programs that claim to build it? Damon deals with that, too. And his reasoning no doubt has helped to fuel the recent and overdue backlash against the self-esteem frenzy, so that many psychologists now urge adults to focus on giving children sincere and thoughtful praise, not cheerleading for trivial efforts. Some parents may see the new moderation as too late, given how much money schools have squandered on programs of no proven value. If so, it’s only the common sense that has arrived belatedly. First published in 1995, Greater Expectations was – and, in some ways, still is – ahead of its time.

This is the third of the daily posts this week about some of my favorite books. Monday’s post dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title and Tuesday’s with Middlemarch.

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

October 23, 2008

Charles Williams’s ‘All Hallows Eve’ – A Classic Novel of the Supernatural From a Contemporary of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (Quote of the Day/Noel Perrin)

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:03 pm
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One of my favorite guides to good reading is Noel Perrin’s A Readers Delight (University Press of New England, 1988) www.upne.com/results.html, a collection of 40 brief, elegant essays on underappreciated classics. This quote comes from its review of All Hallows Eve, entitled “Taking Ghosts Seriously”:

“Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve is one of the most powerful works of supernaturalism to appear in our century. It comes, appropriately enough, out of same nexus as many other such works: The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, the Narnian chronicles. Williams was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – and when his work took him to Oxford during the Second World War, he promptly became the third great central figure in the informal literary group known as the Inklings ….

All Hallows Eve has a complex and even thrilling plot. The action swirls around a great religious leader named Simon Leclerc: a prophet, a worker of miracles, the head of a world cult. He is something like the Reverend Mr. Moon raised to the fourth power – or he seems that way to outsiders at least. He is actually the most powerful magician who has lived in several hundred years, and he is a tall, god-like, ascetic, and wholly evil person, a negative of Jesus Christ, whose very distant cousin he in fact is. What he promises human beings is peace; what he actually seeks is to rule them, not only in life but even after their deaths.

“All the other characters meet Simon, and all in the end must choose between serving him and resisting him.”

Perrin says in the essay that he believes Williams en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_(UK_writer)
is less famous than Tolkien or C. S. Lewis partly because he wrote fiction only for adults, not for adults and children: “All Hallows Eve will never be a TV special – or if it is, it will be so debased and vulgarized as to make most TV specials of great books seem works of astonishing fidelity.” Online and other booksellers have a 2002 edition of All Hallows’s Eve (Regent College Press, 296 pp., $19.95, paperback), introduced by T. S. Eliot, which uses in the title an apostrophe after “Hallows” that does not appear in A Reader’s Delight.

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

October 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Did the Swedish Academy Announce the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Yom Kippur? Cultural Insensitivity in Stockholm

Did you look at the lists of the bookies’ favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature and think, “There’s no way Philip Roth or Amos Oz is going to get the award this year”? I did for an obvious reason: The Swedish Academy said it was going to announce the winner on Yom Kippur. And I couldn’t believe the Academy would be so religiously tone-deaf as to ask a Jewish writer to take a call from the judges — and face the ensuing media onslaught — on a high holy day. The judges would have looked like cretins even if the winner had been too overjoyed to object. In naming the day of the prize, the Academy all but told Roth and Oz to forget it.

The question is: Why did the Academy decide to announce the winner on Yom Kippur in the first place? To my knowledge no important literary prizes are awarded on major religious holidays. That timing may reflect a literary reality as much as a respect for people’s spirituality: Writers get so few prizes that they deserve to be able enjoy them when they do.

To much of the world, the Nobel Prize in literature represents high culture and Hollywood stands for low. But even the Academy Awards presenters don’t hand out the Oscars on Easter. By deciding to award the literature prize on Yom Kippur, the Swedish Academy has made Hollywood look like a pillar of good taste.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 30, 2008

A Rosh Hashanah Tradition Worth Adapting

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:17 pm
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Elizabeth St. James recalls a Rosh Hashanah tradition worth adapting in Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays (Andrews McMeel, 1998):

“Many years ago in parts of Europe there was a custom at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which could expand our present-day ideas about giving.

“A village elder went from house to house with a bag full of coins. Those who could afford to contribute put coins in the bag; those who were poor and needed help took coins out of the bag. No distinction was made between those who put in and those who took out. This practice insured that no one in the community suffered, and it was done in a manner that maintained the dignity of all.

“What a beautifully simple idea. Give to those in need. Take only when you’re in need.”

St. James suggests adapting this tradition by donating blood, arranging to have fresh fruits or vegetables delivered to someone every month for a year, or giving a gift certificate for car repair, home maintenance, or another service a financially strapped family might not be able to afford. She offers more ideas like these in Simplify Your Christmas.

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

August 17, 2008

Quotes of the Day from Rick Warren’s ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ — ‘The Bestselling Nonfiction Hardback Book in History’

I didn’t see the evangelical pastor Rick Warren interview the presumptive presidential nominees yesterday at his California megachurch, but I was curious about the man who persuaded Barak Obama and John McCain to spend an hour apiece answering his questions. Somebody had stolen my library’s only copy of Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which the trade journal Publishers Weekly called “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” But I found the paperback edition in the Christianity section of a local bookstore. Here are some quotes from The Purpose Driven Life.

“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”

“God has a purpose for your life on earth, but it doesn’t end here. His plan involves far more than the few decades you will spend on this planet.”

“Temptation is a sign that Satan hates you, not a sign of weakness or worldliness.”

“I once heard the suggestion that you develop your life purpose statement based on what you would like other people to say about you at your funeral. Imagine your perfect eulogy, then build your statement on that. Frankly, that’s a bad plan. At the end of your life it isn’t going to matter at all what other people say about you. The only thing that will matter is what God says about you.”

“Now that you understand the purpose of life, it is your responsibility to carry the message to others.”

“Even many remote villages get email, so you can now carry on “e-vangelistic” conversations with people on the other side of the world, without even leaving home!”

Comments have been turned off for this post. Thank you for not leaving comments about this post here or elsewhere on One-Minute Book Reviews. Many sites welcome comments on The Purpose Driven Life www.purposedrivenlife.com. You can find some of them by searching for terms such as “purpose driven life” and “discussion groups.” You can find a transcript of what Obama and McCain told Rick Warren at rickwarrennews.com/transcript/ and more about their interviews with him here thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/16/tonights-obama-mccain-faith-forum/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 21, 2008

Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’ – Looking for Jesus in All the Wrong Places

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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Miracles occur in a New Hampshire prison after a man ends up on death row for crimes that occurred when he was a 33-year-old carpenter

Change of Heart: A Novel. By Jodi Picoult. Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Change of Heart is the best novel I’ve read in a long time about religious gobbledygook. After 15 books, Jodi Picoult still cares enough about her craft to leave most of the Da Vinci Code knockoffs behind in a cloud of incense. She’s a more careful and interesting writer than Dan Brown and at times shows an appealingly droll wit. And she has more substantive concerns than off-the-wall ecclesiastical conspiracies, including the case for abolishing the death penalty. Picoult is also a conscientious researcher. For this book she visited a lethal-injection chamber and, when she needed to learn about the Gnostic Gospels, got private tutorials from Elaine Pagels, one of the country’s foremost scholars on the subject.

But in Change of Heart Picoult serves up characters with some peculiar traits or, rather, non-traits. They live in New Hampshire, but none has a credible New Hampshire accent or other characteristics that reflect the state or even New England — they might as well live in Nebraska. The oddest character is a 33-year-old carpenter who is sentenced to death for murdering a young girl and a policeman, then performs apparent miracles in a state prison. Shay Bourne cures the sick, brings a dead bird to life and feeds seven men with one piece of Bazooka bubble gum. Halfway through the book, you’re wondering what he could do it they ever ran low on the spelt bread and tilapia at Whole Foods. Bourne also wants to donate his heart after his execution to the gravely ill sister of the girl he killed. To do this, he needs to persuade a court that his religion requires such an action. And that effort pits him at different times against the mother of the dead child, a priest who has a crisis of faith, and a female lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union whose only recent dates have been court dates. All of them run a footrace against time his scheduled execution approaches.

Behind all of this lies a larger question than whether Bourne will be able donate his heart to a girl who needs it: What is a religion? Picoult treats traditional faiths respectfully. But one of her themes surfaces in the words of an inmate with AIDS: “Religion was supposed to be a blanket drawn up to your chin to keep you warm, a promise that when it came to the end, you wouldn’t die alone – but it could just as easily leave you shivering out in the cold if what you believed became more important than the fact that you believed.”

Change of Heart has many lines that one that are so vague that they could be used to justify almost any kind of religious hokum. And in age of anything-goes spirituality, that may help to explain why the book sped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Picoult has cross-bred three popular genres — the courtroom drama, the religious thriller and the romance novel — in package much easier to digest than the arcana of The Da Vinci Code as long as you don’t expect too much plausibility from the plot. A telling scene occurs near the end of the book when a doctor suggests to the priest and the civil-liberties lawyer that they call the governor in an effort to break an impasse in Bourne’s case. When they don’t respond, he says, “Well, isn’t that what happens on TV? And in John Grisham novels?” You might think that Picoult is engaging in bit of self-satire here, signaling her intention to take her plot in a direction Grisham wouldn’t, but two pages later, her characters are breezing through the metal detectors at the statehouse.

Best line: Maggie Bloom notes that having a body wrap requires her to disrobe and pay a stranger to handle her body: “Was it just me, or was there a great deal that spa treatments had in common with prostitution?” Then why have the wrap? “The problem was, you never heard anyone say, ‘Wow, check out the brain on that babe.’”

Worst line: Convicted murderer Shay Bourne explains why he doesn’t go to church: “Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?” Later, after a correctional officer survives a deadly assault by an inmate, a priest asks a doctor: “You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”

Published: March 2008 www.jodipicoult.com

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

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

twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 17, 2008

Why Is ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ Such an Important Novel? (Quote of the Day / Doris Lessing)

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm
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Alan Paton never won a Nobel Prize for Cry, the Beloved Country, his landmark 1948 novel about a Zulu minister who learns that his son has murdered the son of a white man. But his book may have had a greater impact on the struggle for racial justice in South Africa than any by Nadine Gordimer, who did win. And it has had a strong readership in the U.S. for six decades, bolstered by two movie versions and its selection for Oprah’s Book Club in 2003.

Why was Cry, the Beloved Country so important? Here’s an answer from Doris Lessing, the novelist and 2007 Nobel laureate in literature, who was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and wrote another book critical of South Africa, The Grass Is Singing, that appeared soon after Paton’s:

“What you have to remember is that the whole of southern Africa was seen as a very happy, fun place full of satisfied blacks…. Cry, the Beloved Country destroyed that vision. Then along came The Grass Is Singing, which helped to break it down even more.”

Doris Lessing as quoted by Emily Parker in “Provocateur” in the Weekend Interview with Doris Lessing, The Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008.

Read a biography of Paton at
www.litweb.net/biography/142/Alan_Paton.html.

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

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