One-Minute Book Reviews

March 17, 2009

‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (Quote of the Day / W. B. Yeats)

Members of an isolated British reading group write letters about their favorite books in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 2008), a bestselling novel set mainly on a Channel Island in 1946. But one character rages against William Butler Yeats, the Irish Nobel laureate. The complaint: Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 and said in its introduction that he had left out all the great World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, because

“ … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

This well-known quote was controversial from the start. But it suggests how much poetry has changed: Many recent collections, such as Frances Richey’s The Warrior and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, include poems that involve “passive suffering.”

What do you think of the change? Does poetry need less passive suffering and more active engagement with life? Or are modern poets proving that Yeats was wrong?

Read Yeats’s full quote and more on The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html.

A review of and reading group guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/. A review of The Warrior was posted on July 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/ and of Elegy on March 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/.

nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 17, 2008

Two Books That Deal With the Battle of Gettysburg Could Win 2008 National Book Awards on Wednesday, 145th Anniversary the Gettysburg Address

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:08 pm
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I’ve been covering book awards for a long time, and I can’t recall having seen a coincidence like this one: Two books that reconsider the Battle of Gettysburg could win National Book Awards on Wednesday, the 145th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address www.nationalbook.org. On the nonfiction shortlist: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which deals in part with the creation during the war of a new kind of cemetery at Gettysburg and other battle sites – a burial ground intended not just to dispose of bodies but to “memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes.” Among the poetry finalists: Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival, a collection that includes “To the Republic,” in which fallen Union and Confederate soldiers accuse the U.S. of having betrayed their sacrifices at Gettysburg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 27, 2008

Frances Richey’s Poetry Collection ‘The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 pm
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Internal and external conflicts intersect in a collection of 28 poems

The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War. By Frances Richey. Viking, 84 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I went to an American Ballet Theater production of Sleeping Beauty with a companion who called it, with some justification, “a walking ballet.” The choreography may delight crowds, but you don’t go to this one for aerial special effects such as long sequences of dazzling grand jêtés.

The Warrior is a collection of walking poetry, billed by its publisher as “a memoir in verse.” Frances Richey, a yoga teacher, began to write its 28 poems when her son, a West Point graduate and Green Beret, went on the first of his two tours of duty in Iraq. Her book is about the distances – physical and emotional – that war puts between a parent and child.

Richey is earnest and at times pedestrian writer who works mostly in unrhymed, variable-length free verse with the occasional hint of an internal or end-rhyme or both (“and since my son was the only one / who’d never hunted”). In a poem called “The Book of Secrets,” she recalls her son’s early years: “ … Mornings, / when I left him with the sitter, / I had to close my heart, // or else obsess he was crossing / Oak alone.” You don’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but they read less like poetry than stenography, a literal transcription from life without the alchemy of a great poem. In some of the other poems, no thought seems too obvious to avoid making explicit. “I can’t protect him,” she tells us in one. “Will he come back?” she wonders in another. “ On learning that Iraq can be cold, she reflects, “I was always asking if he was warm enough. / Put a sweater on, I’d say. Your jacket …”

Other poems are less prosaic, and two are particularly good. In “The Aztec Empire” Richey considers artifacts of human sacrifice that she sees in an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and links them elegantly to the sacrifice of human lives in Iraq. And in “Kill School” she describes a combat training program that teaches a soldier how to kill by having him rock a rabbit “like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster,” then smash its head against a tree. Richey doesn’t call her book a collection of antiwar poems, but these two poems speak for themselves. And their direction, like that of the other poems in The Warrior, is no less clear because they walk instead of soaring toward their destination.

Best line: From “Kill School”: “The trainer showed him / how to rock the rabbit / / like a baby in his arms, / faster and faster, // until every sinew surrendered / and he smashed its head into a tree.”

Worst line: You may need to assume a lotus pose to appreciate: “… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”

Editor: Paul Slovak

Published: April 2008 www.francesrichey.com

You may also want to read: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials: Poems, 1997–2005, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, which has several poems critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including “Bush’s War. ” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/

Furthermore: Richey also wrote the poetry collection The Burning Point. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 19, 2008

How Do You Tell Someone That a Relative Has Died in Iraq? A Review of ‘Final Salute’ – Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:13 pm
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How do U.S. military officers tell people that their relatives have died in Iraq? A review of Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews. Sheeler www.jimsheeler.com won a Pulitzer Prize for some of the reporting in this book about a Marine Corps “casualty notification officer” and the families who received the news of a relative’s death from him.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 26, 2008

Great Nonfiction for Teenagers — True Stories With High Drama

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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True tales of disaster on land, on sea and in the thin air of Mt. Everest

By Janice Harayda

I noticed while doing research for a future post on John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Vintage, 152 pp., $6.95, paperback) that this modern classic had won an award for “Books for the Teen Age” from the New York Public Library www.randomhouse.com/vintage/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679721031. The contents first appeared in The New Yorker — not a magazine for teenagers — so the honor might seem surprising.

But there’s no doubt that many teenagers would be deeply affected by this true story of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. Hersey tells what all were doing at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 – one woman had just given each of her children a handful of peanuts – and follows them for a year. The result is a triumph of focus: Hersey homes in on his subjects’ struggle to stay alive, physically and emotionally, so his book has more in common with great disaster narratives than with what many people think of as “a New Yorker article” (long, digressive, full of semicolons). The Vintage paperback edition has a chapter on the survivors lives’ 40 years later. And because its structure resembles some of the most gripping accounts of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this short book may especially appeal to teenagers who have a strong interest in that tragedy.

Hiroshima appears on many school reading lists, and you’re looking for nonfiction for a teenager who has already read it, you might consider two books dramatic enough to have inspired movies — John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a tale of disaster on Mt. Everest (Anchor, 383 pp., $14.95, paper) or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (HarperPerennial, 272 pp., $13.95, paperback), an account of terror at sea. Or try John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (Vintage, 336 pp., $14.94, paperback). This National Book Award–winner tells the story of a Puritan minister and his wife and children who were captured by Mohawks and marched to Canada, where a daughter stayed and married an Indian after her family members had died or been released. The Unredeemed Captive is more challenging than the others but well within reach of high school students who are strong readers.

A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Coming soon: Why do some parents see red about Pinkalicious and its sequel, Purplicious?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 19, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Story ‘Threatens to Blow Into a Million Little Pieces,’ Cover Story in the Village Voice Says

Filed under: News,Newspapers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:53 pm
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Graham Rayman has a wonderful cover story in the new issue of the Village Voice on the escalating controversy about the credibility of A Long Way Gone. Rayman’s article is by far the best by an American reporter on the bestseller by Ishmael Beah, who claims to have been a boy soldier in Sierra Leone for more than two years www.villagevoice.com/news/0812,boy_soldier,381308,1.html.

The Voice story (in which I am quoted) includes a fascinating interview with Neil Boothby, an expert on children and war at Columbia University who has worked with young refugees in Darfur, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Boothby told Rayman that he had avoided commenting on A Long Way Gone because he saw Beah as a courageous spokesman and didn’t want to undermine any “human-rights momentum” the book generated. Nonetheless, Boothby said:

“I think what [Beah] has done is meet with UNICEF, journalists, and others, and he told stories, and people responded to certain stories enthusiastically. That has encouraged him to come out with an account that has sensationalism, a bit of bravado, and some inaccuracies. To me, the key question is whether there’s enough accuracy to make the story credible.”

Boothby also said:

“My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration. I’ve seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories. It’s not surprising that that could be the case here.

“The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?”

Beah has maintained that there is no exaggeration and his story is “all true.”

Rayman’s article has many other thought-provoking comments like Boothby’s and, for its intelligence and clarity of vision, surpasses anything on Beah that has appeared in the New York Times and other daily newspapers. Don’t miss the Voice story if you’re confused about the claims and counter-claims for the book or if you belong to a reading group that’s considering it.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 2, 2008

Ishmael Beah May Have Had ‘Nagging Doubts’ About His Story, Wikipedia Reports — A World Exclusive for the Online Encyclopedia? — Or Was It Sucker-Punched?

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:55 pm
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[Update at 11:30 p.m., March 9, 2008: Another bizarre change the entry for Beah — this one suggesting that his parents may not be dead! All along Beah been claiming to be an orphan. This change in the entry requires a separate post, which will be dated March 9 or 10 depending on how long it takes to write. Jan]

[Update at 1:30 a.m. March 7, 2008: Since this post appeared, Wikipedia has removed some of the editorializing, speculation and other elements of Beah’s entry that appeared to violate its own policies. But if the recent pattern holds, these will soon reappear. In any case, the entry is outdated, inconsistent with published reports and an unreliable source of information. For example, Wikipedia refers to Laura Simms as Beah’s “foster mother.” Beah refers to her as his “adoptive mother.” Similar problems occur throughout the entry. Jan]

The reference site again abandons neutrality and editorializes about the bestselling author and this time speculates about the mental state of the man who says he was a child soldier

By Janice Harayda

Ishmael Beah may have had “nagging doubts” about parts of his controversial A Long Way Gone, Wikipedia reports. The free online encyclopedia makes this startling assertion in its March 2 entry on the author who claims to have been a child soldier for two years in Sierra Leone en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah.

The Wikipedia statement, if true, would appear to be either a world exclusive for the popular reference site or evidence that it has been sucker-punched. Beah has not publicly admitted to having such “nagging doubts.” He says in A Long Way Gone that he has a “photographic memory.” And after questions arose about the credibility of his book, he released a statement that said, “Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html.

Wikpedia speculates about Beah’s state of mind in a section of his entry called “Credibility Controversy.” The section deals with articles in the Australian that have made a persuasive case that Beah’s village was attacked in 1995, not in 1993 as he suggests, and that he could not been a soldier for more than a few months. Wikipedia speculates: “Beah perhaps believed to the best of his memory, events were in 1993; but was aware of a few nagging doubts, so could not commit 100% to that date.” Or perhaps the author of that ungrammatical comment hopes you won’t remember that Beah said as recently as January: “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong.”

That’s not the only place in the Beah’s entry where Wikipedia contines the editorializing discussed in a Feb. 13 post on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/. Some biased comments were removed after that post appeared.

But Wikipedia has added a long new section of editorializing (beginning “However, there is …”) that attempts to justify inconsistencies in A Long Way Gone in ways neither Beah nor his publisher has done. This section ends with this campaign rhetoric by the online encyclopedia:

“In the large scheme of things, fixing a precise year is perhaps not that important. The main issue is child soldiering. Beah clearly went through horrendous experiences, and it probably makes little difference whether they were spread over a few months or longer.”

This is not a neutral statement. It is a further attempt to deflect attention from the credibility of Beah’s account by focusing on child soldiers in general. Who says that “the main issue is child soldiers”? Why isn’t the main issue the truth? Or respect for the nearly 700,000 people bought A Long Way Gone and deserve better answers than they have received from Beah and his publisher about what it contains?

Child soldiering is a tragedy. But legitimate questions have been raised about survivors’ accounts of tragedies from the Holocaust to the Sept. 11 attacks. And some accounts have been revealed to have flaws ranging from mild inaccuracies to sweeping fabrications.

If questions were raised about a Holocaust or 9/11 memoir, would Wikipedia editorialize that “the main issue is that 6 million Jews died” or “the main issue is that the U.S. was attacked”? Simplistic arguments like these insult thoughtful and intelligent adults who are capable or recognizing that great as a tragedy may be, any individual account of it may have serious flaws. And it’s a mystery why Wikipedia keeps allowing such editorializing to appear in Beah’s entry.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2008

Does the Cover of ‘A Long Way’ Gone Show a Soldier in Niger or Another African Country Instead of Sierra Leone? Why Isn’t the Location Identified?

Filed under: Book Covers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:50 pm
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Seeing red on the dust jacket of Ishmael Beah’s controversial book

Does anything strike you as odd about the photo on the cover of A Long Way Gone, the book that Ishmael Beah bills as a memoir of his years as a child solider in Sierra Leone? For months the picture puzzled me: Why was the young solider wearing a T-shirt in a shade of orange-red so bright, it would make him an easy target for an enemy?

The book says only that the picture was taken by Michael Kamber www.kamberphoto.com and came from the Polaris image bank www.polarisimages.com. And at first I suspected that an art director had changed the original color of the T-shirt to a bright orange-red so the cover would stand out more at stores.

But the more I looked at the cover, the more questions I had: Why hasn’t the young man’s T-shirt faded when his flip-flops are so tattered? Where was the picture taken? If it shows Sierra Leone, why doesn’t the cover say so?

It occurred to me that the soldier might be wearing an orange-red T-shirt for the same nationalistic reasons that the Marines wear their blue, white and red dress uniforms. But the colors of Sierra Leone flag don’t include orange or red – they’re blue, green and white. And the colors of another West African country, Niger, are the colors of the young soldier’s T-shirt and flip-flops – dark orange and green. Soldiers in Niger seized control of the government in 1996 after the ouster of the president Mahamane Ousmane, and Human Rights Watch has called on both government and rebel forces to end abuses against civilians that have occurred in a more recent conflict www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/12/19/niger17623.htm.

Publishers don’t have to tell you more about stock photos than Beah’s book does. Still, wouldn’t you like know how this one found its way onto the cover of A Long Way Gone?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 26, 2008

Rating the Cover of ‘A Long Way Gone’ – Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Covers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
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Update, 5 p.m. Yes, I still plan to rate the cover today, Wednesday. The post should be up in an hour or so. Thanks for your patience. Jan

You could argue that the cover of A Long Way Gone doesn’t matter, given all the other concerns that have been raised about the credibility of this book by a man who claims to have spent two years as a child soldier in Africa. But book covers always matter in the sense that what you wear on a job interview matters. They’re part of what’s become known in the age of Facebook as “impression management.” So tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the cover of A Long Way Gone in the next of its occasional series of posts that rate book covers on their artistry and accuracy in representing the text. You’ll find other posts in the “Book Covers” category at right. This site welcomes comments from booksellers, librarians, graphic designers and others whose perspectives on book covers may differ from those of literary critics.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 14, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Wikipedia Entry – A Point-by-Point Response for Reporters, Producers, Book Groups and Others Seeking Facts About the Author of ‘A Long Way Gone’

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has an entry on Ishmael Beah that may mislead reporters, producers and others seeking facts about the author of A Long Way Gone. This post is an attempt to clarify some of the statements that may cause confusion. It may be updated to deal with others.

Wikipedia says:
“He now considers his foster mother, Laura Simms, his mother.”

Others say:
Ishmael Beah says Laura Simms is “my adoptive mother.”
“Ishmael Beah Takes a Public Stand,” by Michael Coffey, Publishers Weekly Jan. 21, 2008. www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html.

Laura Simms’s Web site refers to “her adopted son Ishmael Beah.” www.laurasimms.com.

Wikipedia says:
“He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and ‘brown-brown’, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder.”

Others say:
Jon Stewart said,while questioning Beah on the Daily Show on February 14, 2007, that the drugs included crystal meth. Beah did not correct him and appeared to nod www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah.

Wikipedia says:
“Beah currently works for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, lives in Brooklyn, and is considering attending graduate school.”

Others say:
On Nov. 20, 2007 Beah was appointed the UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War. www.unicef.org/people/media_41827.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda com.

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