One-Minute Book Reviews

May 22, 2011

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:28 pm
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Stories about “the action of grace on a character” who resists it

Everything That Rises Must Converge. By Flannery O’Connor. Introduction by Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, a symbol of immortality in Christian art. Her stories rank among their American literary equivalents, a sign and example of timeless fiction about sin and redemption in an age of ephemera.

O’Connor once said that all of her stories were about “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it” – typically because of pride, envy, sloth, gluttony or another of the seven deadly sins. This is not to say that her work is abstruse. Everything That Rises Must Converge has nine of her later stories, and all are taut, clear, linear and free confusing shifts in point of view or time frame. They are among the most reliable antidotes to the disjointed, postmodern fiction that is so popular today.

All of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are tragicomedies that expose a spiritual void in the lives of their characters. The gap is typically thrown into relief by the convergence of races, classes or generations in the newly integrated South. One of the best stories is “Revelation,” which involves a self-satisfied churchgoer brought low partly by an assault that occurs in a doctor’s waiting room after a patient hears her alternately praising Jesus and talking about sending blacks back to Africa. Another of the finest is “Parker’s Back,” which deals with an ex-sailor who tries to ease his spiritual emptiness by marrying a preacher’s daughter and filling his body with tattoos but who suffers cruelly when those efforts intersect. In all of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge, redemption comes through divine grace after tragedy or great sorrow. Six of the nine end in violent death – they reverse the pattern of contemporary mysteries that serve up a corpse in the first pages – and in those in which everyone lives, an inner cataclysm unfolds.

For all their tragedy, these stories brim with humor. O’Connor keeps tragedy and comedy in an equipoise that few American writers can match. In the title story, a bitter and ungrateful college graduate lives at home and sells typewriters because he can’t earn a living as a writer. Julian mocks his widowed mother’s reverence for her prominent ancestors even as he benefits from the family pride that keeps her from tossing him onto the street: “She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things.” The humor modulates in this and other stories from deadpan wit and droll irony to much more satirical commentaries that fall equally on whites and blacks.

O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39 and won a posthumous National Book Award for fiction her Complete Stories. Few winners of that prize have deserved it more, and her stature has grown since she received it. In 2009 the sponsor of the award asked the public to vote for the first “Best of the National Book Awards” winner. O’Connor won for her Compete Stories, which includes all nine that appear in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Best line: Two from “Greenleaf”: “Wesley, the younger child, had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual.” “She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

Worst line: At times O’Connor uses a perhaps too heavy-handed verb, such as “hissed” or “groaned,” instead of “said” or another that sits more lightly on the page.

Published: 1965 (first edition).

Caveat lector: Everything That Rises Must Converge doesn’t include two of O’Connor’s best stories, “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which appear in the 555-page The Complete Stories. But it stands on its own and has an excellent 21-page introduction by Robert Fitzgerald.

Book clubs: If you can’t read one of O’Connor’s books, try reading three or four of her best stories, such as “Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back” and the title story in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Furthermore: One-Minute Book Reviews has also reviewed O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. It posted quotes from that book on symbols in fiction and on “compassion” in writers. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a collection of O’Connor’s letters in the Washington Post. One of the best resources about her work is the Flannery O’Connor Repository. Andalusia, the Georgia farm on which O’Connor raised peacocks, has a peafowl aviary open to visitors.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 20, 2009

Ann B. Ross’s ‘Miss Julia’ Returns in ‘Miss Julia’ Delivers the Goods’

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:42 pm
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Just back from a lively talk by Ann B. Ross, author of the popular “Miss Julia” novels about a wealthy, straight-talking widow and staunch Presbyterian in the fictional town of Abbotsville, North Carolina. Ross was promoting her new Miss Julia Delivers the Goods (Viking, 339 pp., $24.95), which finds her heroine playing matchmaker to two feuding mainstays of the series.

I haven’t read the books, but I liked the talk. Ross did something I’ve rarely seen at signings for authors of light fiction: She began by talking about the history of novels in Western culture in general. She noted that when they first appeared in England in the early 18th century, ministers preached against them – not because the content was poor but because they told made-up stories or encouraged people to read “lies.” What kinds of novels did they condemn? Among them: Robinson Crusoe, one of the great adventure novels of all time.

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

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.

February 5, 2009

A Fresh Look at ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — Not Just for Students

A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s

A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.

What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.

Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”

“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.

Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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