One-Minute Book Reviews

October 17, 2007

10 Percent of Americans Think Joan of Arc Was Noah’s Wife — Quote of the Day (George Barna via Stephen Prothero)

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American are reading less of all kinds of things, including religious books. What are the effects? Here’s an example from a survey of religious literacy:

“Ten percent of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

Stephen Prothero in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t (HarperOne, $24.95). He’s citing research published in George Barna’s The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996). Prothero www.stephenprothero.com chairs the religion department at Boston University www.bu.edu. You can find more statistics like the one above if you go to www.amazon.com and use the “Search Inside the Book” tool to find page 30 in Religious Literacy.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2007

Robert Cording’s Poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey’

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A reminder for anyone observing Pentecost (Sunday, May 27) …

Robert Cording’s eloquent collection Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, $16, paperback) includes the poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.” A review of Common Life appeared on this site on April 5, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the April posts. You can find more information on Cording, a professor of English at Holy Cross, at www.cavankerrypress.org. Click on the “Reading Room” page on that site to read his poem, “A Prayer to Adam,” the first poem in Common Life.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 4, 2007

Handel Wrote ‘Messiah’ in 24 Days (and You Thought You Were Productive at Work) … Quotes of the Day #16 and #17

Do you have what it takes to write the “Hallelujah” chorus?

Come unto me, all ye that labor and believe you are worthy of the next employee-of-the-month award. Many authors have marveled at how quickly G. F. Handel wrote Messiah, which has a score of more than 250 pages that he finished in 24 days. Percy M. Young writes in The Oratorios of Handel (Dobson, 1949):

“Handel’s habit of rapid construction came less from the supposed mystery of ‘inspiration’ than from the fluency of technique: with him a set piece was accomplished in the shortest possible time so that other aspects of life could be accommodated. Messiah was composed, with perhaps more than usual haste, between August 22 and September 14, 1741. Clearly the beginning of the season of mellow fruitfulness … The original score comprises some 250 pages of manuscript; which means that Handel wrote, on the average, a little over ten pages a day.”

But take heart if this makes your daily output look a little less impressive. Peter Jacobi writes in The Messiah Book: The Life and Times of G.F. Handel’s Greatest Hit (St. Martin’s, 1982):

“Granted, some of the music wasn’t new; he’d used it before, an aria here, a duet there … And there are indications of changes: seven stabs at the great ‘Amen,’ for instance.”

There, now don’t you feel better?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Speaks Out in ‘Infidel’ Against ‘Honor Killings’ and Other Injustices to Women

A Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament writes about her circumcision at the age of five and other events that shaped her life

Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In November 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, called Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran.

Infidel begins with a gripping account of the murder. And the scene sets the tone for much of the rest of this memoir of Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States and her work for a conservative think tank.

Much of the coverage of Infidel has focused on some of its more harrowing events. These include the day that 5-year-old Hirsi Ali and her 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister underwent circumcisions arranged by their grandmother, with the job done in the author’s case by a man with scissors “who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan.” But Infidel has equally memorable portraits of later events, such as the treatment Hirsi Ali received after asking for asylum in Holland. The Dutch government, until it could act on her request, gave her free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. It also provided her with free laundry services, legal representation and health care, and a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. Does this help you understand why so many people want to emigrate to the Netherlands and other welfare states?

For all its insights into such topics, Infidel isn’t always credible or persuasive in its arguments. Hirsi Ali admits that she lied to Dutch officials to get refugee status for herself and, later, for her sister, which raises questions about whether she is always telling the truth elsewhere. And while she waged a brave and admirable campaign to get the authorities to keep track of the “honor killings” of Muslim women who had been raped or otherwise “stained” their family honor, she adds: “I am also convinced that this is the largest, most important issue that that our society and our planet will face in this century.” More important than nuclear war?

Some people have called Hirsi Ali “the new Salman Rushdie” because she has received death threats. But her fascinating memoir has much more to offer to most American readers than the frequently opaque magical realism of The Satanic Verses. If you belong to a reading group looking for books that will inspire passionate debate, you could hardly find a memoir more likely to ignite sparks.

Best line: On what the author learned at a Muslim center in Nairobi: “There were so many rules, with minutely detailed prescriptions, and so many authorities had pronounced on them all. Truly Muslim women should cover their bodies even in front of a blind man, even in their own houses. They had no right to walk down the middle of the street. They should not move out of their father’s house without permission.”

Worst Line: Quoted above, about how the registration of honor killings is “the largest, most important” issue of the century.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to Infidel for book clubs appears in the April 3, 2007, post directly below this one. The post is archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

10 Discussion Questions
Infidel

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

In 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, entitled Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran. Her memoir, Infidel, begins with an account of the murder and deals with Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States. When this book came out, she worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Some of the practices that Hirsi Ali describes, such as female circumcision, have had wide publicity in the U.S. and may have lost some of their shock value. How did Infidel affect your view of them?

2. Did Infidel change your views of any other events that have had extensive media coverage in the U.S., such as tensions in Western Europe between longtime residents and recent immigrants? How did it affect your views?

3. One of the themes of Infidel is the liberating power of books. Hirsi Ali says that at the Muslim Girls’ Secondary School in Nairobi, she read books like 1984, Wuthering Heights and Cry, the Beloved Country. “Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele [sic]. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.” [Page 69] Some people might say women aren’t equal in the novels like those of Susann and Steel – that the goal of their female characters is above all to get a man. Is Hirsi Ali is accurately characterizing any of those books or authors that you’ve read?

4. Ian Buruma, a Dutch author who has met Hirsi Ali and wrote A Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin, 2006) about the Van Gogh case, said in a review of Infidel: “I know from having spoken to her on several occasions that she resents people attributing her views, including her conversion to atheism, to personal experiences. She insists that she arrived at her opinions intellectually and not because she was traumatized, say, by being painfully circumcised as a child, or brutally beaten by her religious instructor or tormented by guilt whenever she was touched by a boy.” [The New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2007, p. 14] Did Infidel convince you that Hirsi Ali arrived at her opinions that way? Why or why not? How much, if any, difference does her ability to do this make to the overall success of the book?

5. Buruma says in the same review that Hirsi Ali’s descriptions of life in the West “have an idealized, almost comic book quality that sounds as naïve as those romantic novels she consumed as a young girl” and “offers up the West as a caricature of sweetness and light, which is then contrasted not to specific places, like Somalia, Kenya or Saudi Arabia, but to the whole Muslim world.” Do you agree? Or do you think she was describing Holland as she saw it at first, a view that later changed?

6. Generations of American school children were taught, and some may still learn, that in the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to fight the “infidels.” The word that Americans once applied to people in other parts of the world, some now apply to us. How, if at all, does this affect your view of the use of words like “infidel”?

7. Hirsi Ali says that “a new idea crept up on me” on her first day in Bonn, a stopover on her way to Canada to join a husband she had been forced to marry: She didn’t have to go to Canada but “could disappear here.” [page 187] Did you believe that this idea suddenly occurred to or that she’d been planning all along to defect? Why?

8. After arriving in Holland, Hirsi Ali went to the Refugee Aid office and learned that the authorities wouldn’t give her asylum just because she had been forced to marry a man she didn’t love. So she cooked up another story about why she wanted to stay: “This story was detailed, consistent, but it was an invention. With hindsight I’m not proud of this fact but, but yes, it is true that I did not tell my full story to get into Holland.” [Page 193] Later she invents another story so her sister can stay in the Netherlands. What makes much of Infidel credible despite these admissions?

9. Hirsi Ali says that the Dutch government treated her well while reviewing her application for refugee status. She received free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. Hirsi Ali also had free laundry services, legal representation, and health care, and got a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. [Page 192] Did any of this make you say, “I want to move to Holland! Where’s my plane ticket?”

10. Some critics have referred to Hirsi Ali a “feminist” because of her strong advocacy of the rights of Muslim women. Yet she took a job with an American conservative think tank. Are these two incompatible? ["No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam," by William Grimes, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2007, p. E1.]

Extras:
11. Some of the ideas in Infidel relate to those in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is popular with reading groups. If your club has read that book, what similarities and differences do you see between the two?

Vital statistics:
Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26. Published: February 2007.

A review of Infidel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April 2, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them or fees for preparing the guides. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books by award-winning journalist Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please see the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss future reviews I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to the site to others who might like to know about it.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2007

Young, Jewish and Hoping for a Short Seder

A short story collection for people with more than four questions — way more — about how to reconcile their Jewish faith with their Phish bootlegs

You’re young, you’re Jewish, and you’re praying – well, maybe not praying – for a short seder. Who understands you? Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different (Free Press, $18.95) a smart, funny and often bawdy collection of stories about young Jews looking for meaning in rituals that include a seder, a wedding, bat mitzvah, a Yom Kippur service and a packaged tour of Auschwitz. As a Nov. 22 review on this site noted, Albert’s writing transcends the label “Jewish fiction.” But How This Night Is Different could still make a fine Passover gift for anyone hip enough to see the comic potential characters such as a 31-year-old single woman who goes home for the holiday with that least inappropriate of ailments, a yeast infection. How many short story collections have, as this one does, a cover inspired by a bottle of Manishevitz?

Links: Author site www.elisaalbert.com. One-Minute Book Reviews review
www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/elisa-albert/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2006

Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: A Guide to Raising Children With Good Character

A wise and compassionate guide to raising children who have good character, not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. Penguin/Compass, 300 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Are you a Jewish parent trying to solve the “December dilemma,” which Wendy Mogel describes as “resisting the allure of Christmas without building Hanukkah up into a high-stature holiday it was never meant to be”? Are you a parent of another faith who wishes your children would express more gratitude for what they have and fewer complaints about what they don’t have this month?

If so, you can walk into almost any bookstore and find good books about how to tone down the materialism of the season. Wendy Mogel deals instead with the broader issue that often lies behind the concerns about holiday excesses: How can you raise children who have their priorities straight? In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she gives wise and compassionate answers to the question: How can you help your children develop good character and not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”?

Mogel bases her responses on Jewish teachings and her work as a psychologist and leader of workships for parents, and her advice is so refreshing that her book has won deserved acclaim not just from Jewish leaders but from secular critics and publications such as the Episcopal Schools Review. Mogel rightly argues that many parents are so eager to avoid the mistakes of their own elders that they have given away the store: “In their eagerness to do right by their children, parents not only overindulge them materially, but also spoil them emotionally.” They prize their children’s feelings so highly that they fail to instill in them an adequate sense of gratitude and of their responsibilities to others, including their parents, teachers, and community.

How can parents undo the damage? Mogel offers a step-by-step guide in which she is unafraid to use words like “should.” She is rarely less direct than she is in a comment in her section on the importance of manners: “When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should always make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. ‘I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?’ ‘Would you like some of these chips?’” And if you think you couldn’t get your children to do this, this book may change your mind.

For years Mogel has worked in the Los Angeles area and counseled some of the country’s most demanding parents and privileged children. She knows the pressures that high-octane families face and takes a good-humored and down-to-earth approach to them. (Her advice on instilling respect includes a section called “Curing Sitcom Mouth.”) Because her book has become so popular, you can also find it in most bookstores. If you’re looking for a last-minute Hanukkah present for thoughtful parents, your search has ended.

Best line: “An especially troubling aspect of modern child-rearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s achievements and feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty toward others.”

Worst line: The cover of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows a girl and boy wearing fully loaded backpacks that fall to their hips. These backpacks do not appear to meet the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight.” http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/augschool.htm The AAP suggests a rolling backback for students with a heavy load, which these two are obviously have. The photo shouldn’t necessarily be held against Mogel because authors may not have the final say in — or even be consulted about — what goes on the covers of their books.

Editor: Jane Rosenman

Recommended if … you’re looking for an antidote to parenting guides with an “anything goes” attitude toward children’s behavior.

Published: September 2001 www.wendymogel.com

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 8, 2006

Julie Vivas’s ‘The Nativity': The Best Version of the Christmas Story for Preschoolers

And the critic said, “Fear not, for this book takes its text from the Gospel of Luke, which shall be found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

The Nativity. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Voyager Books, 36 pp., $7, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

It’s a miracle: For once I agree with the American Library Association www.ala.org, which named The Nativity a Notable Book of the year after its first American publication in 1988. I haven’t seen every version of the Christmas story for preschoolers. But as a former Sunday school teacher, I’ve seen a lot. And take it from somebody who knows how to make remarkably convincing angels – well, sort of convincing — by folding back the handles of coffee cups and glue-ing on ping-pong ball heads: This book is the best for its age group.

The Nativity has several big advantages over most other picture books about birth of Christ and the arrival of the shepherds and wise men. One of these is that it tells the story through the rich and resonant text of the Gospel of Luke from the King James Version of the Bible, dropping only a phrase or two here and there for clarity or space. (“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” becomes “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”) Another advantage of the book is that the characters have no fixed race, so all kinds of families can identify with them. A third is that Vivas provides dynamic but offbeat and deglamorized watercolor illustrations — no gilt halos, no foil star, no flocked sheep. So The Nativity is more accurate than many of the books that have a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who might have come straight from a DreamWorks casting call.

Then what’s not to like? For many families, nothing. But The Nativity has a painting that shows baby Jesus in what Hollywood calls “full frontal nudity.” I can only image the reaction of the mother who once wrote me angry letter after I praised a book by Maurice Sendak with similar anatomical detail. “Why on earth would I want to buy my child a book with pictures of naked babies?” she asked. And although The Nativity is widely available in bookstores, it’s so popular that it may sell out well before Christmas. My local bookstore had only one copy, much upstaged by newer titles. I snapped it up. Go thou and do likewise — this weekend – if you’d like to read The Nativity this season.

Best line: All.

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you believe that a child who can sing “Baby Beluga” can understand: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Published: 1988 (first U.S. edition), 2006 (Restored Voyager Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Check back for more reviews of books for preschoolers in the Children’s Corner, which appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Or read all the reviews archived in the Children’s Books category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

This blog was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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