One-Minute Book Reviews

August 11, 2008

No Consolation in Ann Hood’s ‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’

A mother’s account the death her 5-year-old daughter from a ruthless form of strep contrasts with Elizabeth Edwards’s approach to the death of her 16-year-old son

Comfort: A Journey Through Grief. By Ann Hood. Norton, 188 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

It is Ann Hood’s bad luck that I read Comfort a few days after finishing Elizabeth Edwards’s Saving Graces, which has a moving section on the death of her 16-year-old son. Edwards says that on what would have been Wade’s 17th birthday, she and her husband went to a park and handed out 100 printed cards that read:

“CELEBRATE WADE’S BIRTHDAY
“July 18 would be the 17th birthday of Wade Edwards of Raleigh. Please use the attached coupon to celebrate his birthday with an ice cream or treat from the Pullen Park concession stand.

“The gift you can give in Wade’s name is to do something nice for someone else.”

This lovely gesture caused some pain for Edwards and her husband, John, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice-president:

“It occurred to us later that this would have been a happy way to celebrate Wade’s birthday if he had lived. Instead, the delight on the faces of the children as they returned from the concession stand with ice cream treats was a sad reminder of what it might have been had Wade lived.”

Sad it may been, but the incident shows a warmth and humanity less apparent in Hood’s more self-absorbed account of death of her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, from a ruthless form of strep in April 2002. In a typical passage in Comfort, Hood seems outraged that nearly a year and a half after her daughter’s death, her church sang “Amazing Grace” on a September Sunday “close to Grace’s birthday” and “without any warning” beyond the usual notice in the bulletin. She and her husband went to see the ministers and apparently got the apology they sought: “It was a mistake. They were sorry. It would never happen again. In fact, they would not play ‘Amazing Grace’ in September, or in April, the month Grace died.”

Hood’s anger about this incident is believable. Anyone who has lost someone greatly loved knows that small events can have titanic emotional force and you may need do all you can to protect yourself from them. But “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the world’s most popular hymn www.hymns.me.uk/50-most-loved-hymns.htm and invariably ranks on surveys among the top ten. Perhaps more than any other, it has brought comfort to older people and others facing their own deaths. And the satisfaction that Hood finds in her church’s willingness ban the hymn for two months a year — even as she allows that it still “should be played” at other times — typifies the me-first tone of Comfort. This approach differs both from Edwards’s altruism and from the more journalistic treatment of books such as John Gunther’s classic memoir of the death of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud.

In a sense, the self-indulgence of Comfort is true to life. Grief makes narcissists of us all. A searing loss can leave us – when we want most to remember someone else – aware only of our own pain. But Edwards and others have found ways to acknowledge this reality while offering a more complex view of grief.

In Saving Graces Edwards writes of going after storm to the cemetery where Wade was buried and seeing a man, carrying a small dog, who often visited his father’s grave: “The only tree in the man’s section of the cemetery had fallen, and it had fallen across the grave of his father. His pain and helplessness were overwhelming. I made a small bouquet from the flowers at Wade’s grave and took them to him. He usually brought something for the grave, but that day he was empty in every way. Sometimes we pressed on as if we were not weakened, and then we saw ourselves in someone else.”

Saving Graces is Edwards’s first book, and Comfort is Hood’s tenth. But that cemetery scene may tell you more about grief than anything in Comfort. Hood spells everything out as neatly as an article in Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal, two magazines for which she writes, in prose as smooth as glass. Edwards leaves some things implicit or unanswered, as great novelists do. (Why was that man at the cemetery carrying his dog?) In that sense, Saving Graces is truer to perhaps the most painful aspect of grief: Its depths are unknowable, except to the people who feel it them.

Best line: After Grace’s death, Hood and her husband adopted a baby girl from China and learned in the process some Chinese mothers mark or “brand” their babies with small scars before they abandon them “as a sign of love.” She and her husband traveled in a group of families, all of whom received their children at the same time: “Soon people were lifting pant legs or the cuffs of sleeves to show the small scars on their babies.” On the neck of her new daughter Hood found “a thick rope of scar tissue, round and small,” which a pediatrician belived was a burn that had healed.

Worst line: Hood says that she used to sleep holding her daughter in the crook of her arm: “So that I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”

Recommendation? Tara McKelvey wrote correctly in a review in the New York Times Book Review that Comfort “doesn’t offer comfort, not really – only grief.”

Published: May 2008 www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring08/006456.htm

Furthermore: Hood also wrote Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and The Knitting Circle. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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

November 29, 2007

Raise the Drawbridge and Lower the Portcullis! It’s David Macaulay’s Captivating ‘Castle’

A Caldecott Honor Book about the making of a medieval castle in Wales still appeals to children three decades after its publication

By Janice Harayda

This afternoon I found myself in the children’s section of our library with an 8-year-old friend whose mother had agreed to let me to pick out a book for him while she visited the adult stacks. The book I thought Cory might like wasn’t on the shelves. But David Macaulay’s wonderful picture books about the making of large structures – Cathedral, Pyramid, Castle and the new Mosque – stood near its spot.

Cory loves to read – especially The Invention of Hugo Cabret – but hadn’t seen these treasures, which helped to win a MacArthur grant for their creator. So I pulled a few of Macaulay’s books off the shelves and handed them to him. Cory gravitated right away to a picture of how a drawbridge works in Castle (Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $9.95 paperback, ages 7 and up), a Caldecott Honor Book about the construction of a medieval castle in Wales.

So I returned him to his mother with three of Macaulay’s books and checked back later. Cory was still poring over Castle – specifically, a picture of soldiers who seemed to be underground. I wondered if they were digging a moat. But Cory pointed to a witty drawing of several of their comrades, who were to trying to reach the ramparts. He explained that if “the enemy” couldn’t scale the castle walls, they tried to tunnel their way in. This he had just learned from the book.

I don’t know if every child reacts this way to Macaulay, a superstar in the field. But by now millions must have been captivated by his intelligent texts and intricate and amusing black-and-white cross-hatched drawings. And Castle, first published in 1977, makes an especially good introduction to his work, because it feeds interests kindled in children by fairy and folk tapes. Houghton Mifflin recommends it for 10-to-14-year-olds, but I’d give it to 7-to-9-year-olds and let them grow into it if they’re not quite ready. The pictures will draw in the younger children even if some words are unfamiliar. Just ask Cory.

Links: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Macaulay and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

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

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 21, 2007

Elizabeth Matthews Makes a Stylish Debut in Her Picture-Book Biography, ‘Different Like Coco’

Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.

Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”

But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?

Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.

Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.

Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.

Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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