One-Minute Book Reviews

March 23, 2013

‘Good Books Are All Too Rare’ – Quote of the Day / John Sledge

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:20 pm
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Few book critics for U.S. newspapers write well enough to tempt publishers to issue collections of their reviews. The exceptions include John Sledge, who spent 17 years as the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register before that former daily switched to a three-day-a-week print run in 2012. The University of South Caroline Press has just published a collection of Sledge’s literary essays and reviews, Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, in April. The book includes this quote:

“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.”

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 15, 2009

An 86-Year-Old Former Lawyer Looks Back – Frank Turner Hollon’s ‘The Pains of April’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 pm
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Not long ago I visited a part of Alabama where a lot of people were reading Frank Turner Hollon’s novella, The Pains of April (MacAdam/Cage, 114 pp., $7.50, paperback), a book popular with local reading groups. The narrator is an 86-year-old widower, former lawyer, and Gulf Coast rest-home resident, who reminisces about his life amid activities such as playing cards, watching television, and sneaking out with friends to get a tattoo. And he makes an interesting observation about small-town life: “When a very good carpenter comes into a community, he makes the entire profession better. He raises the bar for good carpenters and puts the bad carpenters out of business. When a very good lawyer comes into a community, there can be a different result. He has the power to destroy the system itself. He has the ability to turn justice around. He can prove the innocent man guilty and set the guilty man free. He can make sense out of nonsense and have a jury laughing at the truth.”

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June 5, 2009

More of My Favorite Books About the South

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:06 am
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In my posts this week on Southern literature, I’ve avoided warhorses and focused on underappreciated works (excluding poetry, which deserves its own series). Among the books I like that didn’t make the cut because they are so well known or because I’ve written about them before on this site: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. What are your favorites?

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A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #5: David C. Barnette’s ‘How to Be a Mobilian’

Filed under: How to,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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A gifted humorist lists the unwritten rules of life in a place where men define the four seasons as “football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing”

How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers. By David C. Barnette. Publishing 101, 143 pp., $11.95.

Regional humor tends not to travel well. The jokes often aren’t funny — or even recognizable as jokes – outside the place that inspired them. But David C. Barnette makes regional humor work in How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers (Publishing 101, 1999). This entertaining, tongue-in-cheek guide spells out the unwritten social codes for events ranging from private weddings to city-wide Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. It works because Barnette is a very funny writer and finds the sweet spot that eludes most would-be Southern wits – a bevy of details that are specific enough to evoke a place but not so specific that they’ll be lost on all but insiders.

Why do you sense when visiting Mobile that a man could get arrested for indecent exposure if his shirt had light starch instead of heavy? Blame it on the city’s unofficial dress code for men, Barnette suggests: “Shirts must be all-cotton, long-sleeved and starched such that they will shatter in an automobile accident.” Women have their own sartorial deal-breakers. One is your shoes can never be lighter than your hemline. “I swear, my mother was so maniacal about that, I have to get white piping stitched on my navy tennis skirts,” a woman told Barnette.

How to Be a Mobilian is near-impossible to find. But Barnette has a page on Facebook (sign in, then go to http://www.facebook.com/people/Dave-Barnette/1013298948/), and if you urge him to bring it back into print, maybe he’ll find a way. Just remember that his timetable may not be yours or mine. As he writes: “Mobile men live by their own four seasons: football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing.”

Barnette also wrote The Official Guide to Christmas In the South: Or, If You Can’t Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold (Morrow, 2007).

This is the fifth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. A second post will follow later today with more of my favorite books about the South.

June 4, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #4: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel, ‘A Summons to Memphis’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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A genteel Southern family stumbles after moving from one Tennessee city to another

A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. Vintage 224 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

Northerners tend to think of the South as more unified than it is. The former Confederate states may have similarities that reflect their legacy of slavery and defeat and their landscape and geography. But each city has its own character, and Dallas and Atlanta and New Orleans are as different as Detroit and Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Few novels show this better than Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its haunting portrayal of the lasting effects of a well-born family’s move from one Tennessee city to another. The plot involves two middle-aged, unmarried sisters in Memphis who try to dragoon their younger brother into returning home from New York and helping them thwart their 81-year-old father’s impending remarriage.

But there is more to the story than whether their effort will succeed. Why is George Carver so determined, at his age, to remarry? Why have his daughters never wed? Why has their brother, Phillip, an editor and antique book collector, remained single, too? All of the answers relate to an incident that occurred during the Great Depression. Betrayed by a trusted adviser, George Carver suffered heavy financial losses and moved his brood from Nashville to Memphis – just over 200 miles but a distance that, for its disastrous effects, might have spanned a continent. The family chafed against unfamiliar roles and social codes, a clash between the old and new South, and lost its moorings.

Phillip Carver tells this story in a tone that is formal and restrained at times to the point of stiffness. This device reflects no lack of skill on the part of Taylor – one of the finest fiction writers of the late 20th century – but rather Phillip’s emotional reserve and detachment from life. The effect is chilling: A Summons to Memphis shows how an uprooting has reverberated over time and all but destroyed a clan that once was a model of Southern gentility. It shows, as Phillip puts it, how “the family in our sort of world and in our part of the country” had become so fragile “that even so slight a shift as from one Southern city to another” could destroy all that it needed to survive.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow, David C. Barnette’s tongue-in-cheek guide to unwritten Alabama social codes, How to Be a Mobilian.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 3, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #3 – Flannery O’Connor’s Collection of Essays on Writing, ‘Mystery and Manners’

A  Southern novelist and short story writer considers the literature of her region and others

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most people associate the Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor with novels and short stories, but she was equally good at nonfiction. She proves it in this elegant collection of essays on life, literature and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

Sally and Robert Fitzgerald adapted the pieces in Mystery and Manners from talks from O’Connor gave at colleges and elsewhere, and part of their charm lies in their conversational tone. Some of their topics are classroom-worthy: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The Teaching of Literature,” “Catholic Novelists and their Readers.”

But O’Connor deals with these subjects as writer, not a professor, and her perspective on them is always fresh and down-to-earth and never pedantic. One of the most interesting essays deals with the prevalence in Southern fiction of the grotesque, which she defines as something “which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Why do oddballs so often turn up in the literature of the region? O’Connor responds: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Other comments on and quotations from Mystery and Manners appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, “Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing” and March 21, 2007 “Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction.” O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux, comments on the critics’ response to her work in the March 4, 2009, post “The Writer Is Insane.” The quote came from Brad Gooch’s new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, lucidly reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.

This is the third in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis.

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.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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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