One-Minute Book Reviews

February 22, 2013

‘Being Dead Is No Excuse’: An Irreverent Guide to Southern Funerals

Filed under: How to,Humor,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased.  And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)

More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that  transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”

Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”

Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?

Published: 2005

Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).

Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

October 28, 2009

John Keegan’s ‘The American Civil War’ — Was the Refusal to Allow the Confederate States to Secede the First Overt Act of American Imperialism?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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I admire the work of John Keegan, perhaps the finest living military historian, and have mentioned his Winston Churchill (Viking, 2002) and his foreword to a recent edition of John Buchan’s classic spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin, 2008). But I may not be able to review his new The American Civil War: A Military History, a book likely to rank high on many holiday wish lists.

So I’d like to quote from the most interesting review I’ve read of the book, written the historian Robert Stewart for the Spectator, and encourage you to read the rest if you’re debating whether to add it to your own list:

“Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and unnecessary,’ the American Civil War was cruel and necessary. (What constitutes an uncruel war is not explained.) Necessary both sides deemed it. At the outset volunteers came forward in such numbers that equipping them and finding capable officers to lead them proved nearly beyond both the Union and the Confederacy. Cruel it certainly was, one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, though two-thirds of its casualties succumbed, not to gunfire, but to disease (much of it caused by bad cooking). …

“Keegan tells an old story in ample, uncomplicated prose and the scale of the book is well judged, sufficient to allow for richness of detail and depth of analysis without overhwhelming the reader. Occasionally words seem to get the better of him. Does it make sense to say that ‘the purpose’ of the war was ‘to inflict suffering on the American imagination,’ that ‘the whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension’? Footnotes are so spasmodic that the criteria for citing sources are impossible to discern. Keegan has to be taken for the most part, on trust. But his command of the war’s geography, his thorough understanding of military organization and his deep humanity, all nourished by a lifetime’s immersion in military history, imbue his account with the authority that we have come to expect from him.”

You can read an excerpt from The American Civil War on the Knopf site.

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 16, 2009

Ann B. Ross’s ‘Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind’ – The First ‘Miss Julia’ Novel

Kidnapping and cheese straws commingle in the first book in a popular series

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind: A Novel. By Ann B. Ross. Harper 288 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Back in the 1990s, mainstream publishers crawled out from under a oleander bush and made an overdue discovery: A lot of people who live in small towns, go to church, and treat their neighbors kindly also like to read. And they want to see themselves reflected in novels instead of — or at least in addition to — characters who rent city apartments, go to nightclubs, and plot revenge against their bosses.

Perhaps no one did more to move publishers toward daylight than Jan Karon, who became a supernova for her series about a kindly rector in the fictional hamlet of Mitford, North Carolina, after finding only a small Christian firm willing to publish her first novel. Karon’s success helped to clear a path for writers like Ann B. Ross, who has emerged as a star in her own right for her ten books about a rich Southern Presbyterian widow who comes into her own after the death of her philandering banker husband, Wesley Lloyd.

Like Karon’s At Home in Mitford, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind takes place in a North Carolina town shielded from the harsher effects of time. But Ross’s book has more attitude – specifically, more irreverence. Karon’s Father Tim is the gentle minister a lot of us wish we had. Ross’s Pastor Ledbetter is the unctuous hypocrite we sometimes get instead.

In Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, Miss Julia gets a surprise visit from Hazel Marie Puckett, who claims to have been  Wesley Lloyd’s longtime mistress and to have brought along his 9-year-old bastard son. When Hazel Marie disappears, Miss Julia believes she must take in Little Lloyd. But certain Abbotsville busybodies don’t like having in their midst a reminder of the moral flaws of the man who owned the town bank. And when Little Lloyd is kidnapped, any number of people might have had a hand in it.

If the novel moves swiftly toward a solution to the apparent crime, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind isn’t really a mystery. It’s a comedy of Southern manners, as light as a basket of cheese straws, that turns on the acerbic wit of its protagonist and her interactions with more broadly drawn characters. Miss Julia sees right through Pastor Ledbetter’s pious ooze, her late husband’s cheating, and other two-faced behavior in Abbotsville. She doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she might have kept Wesley Lloyd from straying by trading her Red Cross shoes for Ferragamos.  And for all her church-going, she avoids looking too closely at what her husband’s afterlife might hold. “He was a Presbyterian and therefore one of the elect,” she says dryly, “which makes me wonder about the election process.”

Best line: Ross writes of a Presbyterian minister who wants a piece of Miss Julia’s inheritance: “ … if he brought up Wesley Lloyd’s estate again, I decided I’d transfer my membership. Maybe to the Episcopal church, where grown men get down on their knees. Which a lot of men, including the Presbyterian kind, ought to try.”

Worst line: Miss Julia’s black maid Lillian has lines like, “You need some liquids in yo’ stomick. Jes’ lay right still while I go get you something to drink.” I didn’t mind these because Ross tries to also capture the flavor of the regional speech of her white Southern characters, so the exchange seemed fair. But some readers may disagree.

About the author: Ross has written ten “Miss Julia” novels, including  Miss Julia Delivers the Goods, just published by Viking. She lives in Henderson, NC.

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

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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