One-Minute Book Reviews

June 21, 2013

Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:54 pm
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A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”

That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.

Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”

But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?

These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”

Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?

Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs — most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love — that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events.  Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?

If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.

Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”

Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother's death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”

Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 29, 2012

Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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Current methods of treating ovarian cancer are “a scandal,” a scholar says

Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer. By Susan Gubar. Norton, 296 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Susan Gubar once hoped to die as swiftly as a relative found dead in her seat by ushers at the Metropolitan Opera House after a performance of Aida. She won’t get her wish.

Gubar was 63 years old and looking forward to retiring from an influential teaching career when she learned in late 2008 that she had Stage III epithelial ovarian cancer. Most women her age who develop the disease die within three years of the diagnosis. Doctors nonetheless treat them with draconian procedures that include “debulking” surgery, which reduces the size of tumors that can’t be removed completely. Such efforts, Gubar came to believe, may “destroy the pleasures of existence” for someone who gains few or no benefits from them.

Is the misery worth it? Gubar often sounds ambivalent as she describes the catastrophes that occurred during and after her debulking. Her calamities began with a bowel perforation during her operation. That mishap led to an ileostomy and to surgical drain irrigations that, she says, “exceeded any level of suffering I thought imaginable” and that morphine couldn’t touch. Afterward she kept “getting sucked into procedure after procedure, each with its ghastly physical repercussions.”

Gubar explains her repeated acquiescence partly by saying that she had two grown daughters who weren’t ready to lose her and that her treatments fostered a helplessness born of pain, fatigue, depression, and sedation. But you sense that there is more to it than that. Gubar calls herself a secular Jew “with no conventional religious faith to speak of.” Did she unwittingly turn medicine into her God? Did her lack of belief in an afterlife make it harder to let go of barbarous treatments? She asks but never satisfactorily answers the question: “how can those of us without firm religious convictions integrate the awareness and actuality of death and dying into our lives?” On the subject of faith, she offers what she acknowledges are “garbled” views such as: “I will love my family until death departs, and since death will never depart, I will love them always and forever.” What on Earth does “until death departs” mean?

In Memoir of a Debulked Woman Gubar interweaves her story with an overview of ovarian cancer in history and literature and with a polemic against the woeful state of treatments for it.  This approach gives her book a breadth lacking in most illness narratives while depriving it of the sharp focus of cancer memoirs such as Joyce Wadler’s My Breast and Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness. Much of the writing is stilted, repetitive, and padded with irrelevant anecdotes about Gubar’s family and friends. It would have benefited from a few pages on how doctors in other industrialized countries treat ovarian cancer.

But what Memoir of a Debulked Woman lacks lacks finesse, it makes up for in importance. No first-person account offers a more comprehensive description of the dismal options for women with late-stage ovarian cancer or makes a more passionate case that the current methods of treating it are “a scandal.” And in an age of medical overkill, those women share many of the dilemmas of patients who have other cancers with low three-year survival rates and who must decide whether to have potentially soul-destroying treatments. This gives the book a relevance that goes beyond the disease at its center.

Gubar’s cancer is in remission, an article in USA Today said last month, so her treatments seem to have extended her life at least slightly beyond what she could have expected. But her memoir makes clear that the precious extra months have come at a price that not everyone would want to pay. Gubar says that, when she’s feeling cynical, she believes that fifty years from now “doctors will look back at the treatment of ovarian cancer today and judge it medieval.” Her book should hasten that process.

Best line: No. 1: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.” No. 2: Gubar offers a good list of “the cockamamie conundrums confronted by people treated for ovarian cancer” (although “cockamamie” is too light-hearted a word for some of them). Among them: Debulking surgery calls for surgeons to remove, while a patient is under general anesthesia, any organs to which the ovarian cancer has spread. So women don’t know beforehand which body parts they will lose and can’t “decide that they would prefer not to … risk the high rate of postoperative complication.”

Worst line: No. 1: Gubar criticizes Joan Acocella (who called her an “amateur” who spouts “shocking nonsense” in The New Yorker) in a way that makes her look worse than Acocella. No. 2: One of many padded sentences: “The radiologist inserted the thick tube into the center of my right buttock: in the Midwest, ‘the butt'; in New York, ‘the tush'; in the South, ‘the bottom'; in fancy French, ‘the derrière'; in pseudo-science, ‘the gluteus maximus'; on the street, ‘the ass'; in Don’s jokey repetition of the nurse’s word, ‘the bee-hind.'”

Caveat lector: Gubar warns: “For those who have reason to believe or need to believe that their cancer is curable, please remember that this book is not about you.”

Published: April 2012

About the author: Gubar is the co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.co

April 20, 2012

Heda Kovály’s Memoir of Nazi and Stalinist Tyranny, ‘Under a Cruel Star’

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 pm
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A firsthand account of a courageous woman’s life at Auschwitz and in Communist Czechoslovakia

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 By Heda Margolius Kovály. Translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Holmes & Meier, 192 pp., $15, paperback. First published as The Victors and the Vanquished (Horizon Press, 1973), translated by Ezrahim Kohák.

By Janice Harayda

Two of the least apt euphemisms in English are “concentration camp” and “Stalinist purge.” Nothing was “concentrated” in Hitler’s crematoria except for misery and death. And nothing was “purged” by Stalinist demagogues except human liberty and life.

Heda Kovály shows how much the euphemisms mask in Under a Cruel Star, a classic memoir of 20th-century totalitarianism. Perhaps her greatest achievement is describing her ghastly experiences during and after World War II with a self-respect that her Nazi and Stalinist oppressors tried again and again to crush.

Kovály was born to well-off Czech parents and lived a comfortable life in Prague until the Nazis herded her and her family along with thousands of other Jews into the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, a slum without sewage, “walled off with a board fence and barbed wire.” It was the first of a series of internments, each more barbarous than the last. At Auschwitz, she and other prisoners had to watch as guards broke the arms and legs of a girl who had tried to escape, then dragged her off to a gas chamber. Kovály nonetheless made a bold and successful attempt to escape during a forced march to Bergen-Belsen, only to find during a desperate house-to-house search for shelter in Prague that most of her old friends turned her away for fear of SS reprisals.

After the war, Kovályand her husband, Rudolf Margolius, had a son, and Rudolf accepted under official pressure a high post in the ministry of foreign trade in newly Communist Czechoslovakia. The party falsely accused him of treason, executed him and his co-defendants after a show trial, and ostracized his widow and young child. Kovály finally fled Czechoslovakia as Soviet tanks arrived to crush the pro-democracy movement in 1968.

Those scant facts don’t begin to suggest the physical and psychological suffering Kovály endured. For 27 years, she seems rarely to have had a day when she wasn’t cold, sick, hungry, homeless, or shunned for the unjust charges against her husband, who was exonerated as the process of de-Stalinization began under Khruschev. Along with life-threatening hardships, Kovály faced countless smaller humiliations. She writes that when survivors of Dachau or Auschwitz spoke of their experiences after the war, their more fortunate friends responded with comments such as, “Oh, yes, we too have suffered, how often there was not even margarine to spread on our bread …”

Kovály focuses on what she experienced and appears never to pad her book with accounts by historians or other victims, which makes her book read like a swift-moving dystopian novel narrated by a wise and clear-eyed storyteller who is appropriately outraged by what she sees. By dint of her husband’s work, she observed at close range the actions of the powerful, including the Party leaders who made scapegoats of Rudolf Margolius and others. That proximity to officialdom allows her include in her memoir a rare combination of poignant domestic scenes and telling observations about signal events of the Cold War.

Under a Cruel Star has much in common with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s account of the kidnapping of her infant son, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. Like Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Kovály married a prominent man and faced tragedy in full view of the public. She has Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s courage, intelligence, and keenness of perception about people and events. And she retained a similar ability to appreciate joy and beauty amid tragedy. Kovály died at the age of 91 in 2010, and her son, Ivan, said that her message to the world was: “I loved you! Live on!”

Best line: The government eventually offered to compensate Kovály for her husband’s execution and asked her to list her losses. She wrote: “Losses my Son and I Suffered Due to the Arrest and Conviction of Dr. Rudolf Margolius: (a) Loss of father (b) Loss of husband (c) Loss of honor (d) Loss of health (e) Loss of employment and possibility to complete studies (f) loss of faith in the Party and in justice.” Only at the very end did she write: “Loss of property.”

Worst line: “Sometime in the fall of 1951, I believe it was in November, Secretary General of the Party Rudolf Slánský was arrested.” Why the “I believe”? It should have been easy to confirm the date of that well-known incident.

Caveat lector: All quotations in this review come from The Victors and the Vanquished, translated by Ezrahim Kohák and published along with his memoir. Some material in the retranslated Under the Cruel Star may differ.

About the author: After the war, Kovály translated German, British and American fiction into Czech, including books by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark, William Golding, and Arnold Zweig.

Furthermore: Alfred Kazin said in a review of Kovály’s book quoted in her New York Times obituary: “This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

April 14, 2012

Next Week — ‘Under a Cruel Star,’ A Classic Memoir of Totalitarianism

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:47 pm
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Critics have hailed Heda Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star as a modern classic about one woman’s experiences first under Nazis and later under Stalinist tyrants who falsely accused her husband of treason and executed him along with his co-defendants in an infamous show trial. Alfred Kazin wrote when the memoir first appeared in America more than 30 years ago that “it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovály’s splendidness as a human being.” One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the book next week.


March 16, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,’ a Memoir

Filed under: Memoirs,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 160 pp., $25), by S.L. Wisenberg

What it is: A feminist breast-cancer diary that grew out of Wisenberg’s blog, Cancer Bitch.

Why I’m reading it: Sandi Wisenberg deals briefly with the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer research foundation, which recently outraged feminists and others by revoking its funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision it reversed.

Quote from the book: “My accountant asked if cancer changed me. I suppose, slightly. I know more about cancer.”

Publication date: March 2009

Read an excerpt from The Adventures of Cancer Bitch: Some material in the memoir appeared in different form on the Cancer Bitch blog, including part of this post about Wisenberg’s bone pain after a Taxol infusion.

Furthermore: Wisenberg co-directs the M.A./M.F.A in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University .

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 12, 2012

10 Picture Books by Women That Didn’t Win a Caldecott Medal

Filed under: Caldecott Medals — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:27 pm
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Why have male artists won twice as many Caldecott medals as their female contemporaries? I suggested a few answers in my post “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best.” And I’ve since created a one-page display on Pinterest of the covers of 10 picture books by women that lost the ALA’s annual award for “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Among the books passed over for the prize: Virginia Lee Burton’s classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, winner of the American Book Award. All have good company in the Caldecott judges’ reject pile, including Dr. Seuss, who won three Honor awards but never the medal. What other titles belong on my Pinterest list?

January 15, 2012

Alice LaPlante’s Novel ‘Turn of Mind’ – An Alzheimer’s Gospel

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:02 am
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A person of interest in a murder case can’t – or won’t – recall whether she killed a friend

Turn of Mind. Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Has anyone noticed the existence of a micro-genre, novels about Jennifers who represent Jesus? First came Erich Segal’s Love Story, a 1970 bestseller about Jennifer Cavalleri, a young Radcliffe graduate with a fatal illness and a father-in-law who saw her as unworthy of his well-born son. Now there’s Turn of Mind, a murder mystery narrated by Jennifer White, a retired 64-year-old hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease whom police think may have killed her daughter’s godmother.

Alice LaPlante draws her religious parallels more explicitly and with more finesse than Segal did in his romantic melodrama. Jennifer White cherishes a 15th-century antique that once disappeared briefly from her Chicago home, an icon that involved St. John of Damascus, whose legend says that authorities amputated his hand after he was framed for forgery and that the intercession of the Virgin Mary led to its reattachment. The body of Jennifer’s friend Amanda O’Toole was found with four fingers surgically removed from its right hand. Does the disappearance of the icon relate to the murder?

Jennifer can’t or won’t offer the answers the sought by the police. She has lost so much of her memory that at times she can’t recognize her grown children, Fiona and Mark, and keeps a journal in which she and others write things she must remember. Her dementia leads you to expect her to be an unusually unreliable narrator. But the notes that others leave in her journal suggest that Jennifer may be most trustworthy character in the book. Is she less reliable than a son who wants her money or a daughter with a red-and-blue rattlesnake tattoo, a potential serpent in Eden?

This plot is reasonably interesting, but it rises above that of a conventional murder mystery mainly by having a protagonist with Alzheimer’s and by gaining a literary gloss from by a few techniques beloved of creative-writing programs. LaPlante omits quotation marks and shows who is speaking by alternating italics and Roman type. This device gives its narrator a flat affect at odds with her strong personality and doesn’t always make the identity of the speaker clear immediately, especially when Jennifer switches late in the book from first-person narration to second- and third-, a sign of her growing distance from her former self. Turn of the Mind is, in some ways, a stunt novel — one more literary than, say, David Nicholls’ One Day, in which the characters reunite each year on the same day, but still one that won’t let you forget its narrative tricks.

But LaPlante adds interest to her story by weaving in a subplot involving faith. She uses her narrator’s mental shifts — between the past and present, lucidity and derangement, light and darkness — to forge subtle links between spiritual and temporal resurrection. Early in Turn of Mind, Jennifer recalls a conversation in which the murdered Amanda said that physical trauma can cause someone to lose faith in God. As the plot unfolds, the possibility arises that a catastrophic change can also restore faith.

Jennifer at first professes not to believe in God, although she wears a St. Christopher medal: “I was raised a Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” But if she rejects the Father, she has more in common with the Son than that they are both known for healing. She has counterparts of the apostles James and Peter. And she has a Mary Magdalene, a faithful aide named Magdalena who stands by her though the police inquiries and who responds when Jennifer asks why she has confessed to an unsavory past, “You forgive trespasses.” If any doubt remains about what the novel is suggesting, Jennifer says that Amanda told her after her diagnosis: “How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ.”

It isn’t giving away too much to say that in the end Jennifer seems to allow God back into her life without quasi-spiritual bromides such as Love Storys: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Turn of Mind tells us that when you’ve lost yourself, something remains — the possibility of transcendence. As Jennifer’s mind ebbs late in the book, she has visions: “The playground. The white Communion dress. Playing kickball in the street.” She also has hope. “There is a good place here,” she tells herself. “It is possible to find it.”

Best line: A leader of an Alzheimer’s support group tells its members: “Step One is admitting you have a problem. Step Two is forgetting you have the problem.” Jennifer wants to add a third step: “Step Three is remembering that you forget.” 

Worst line: A newspaper obituary in which the author tries to imitate the style of the Chicago Tribune. Among its lapses: It says a dead woman turned up without saying who found the body, which newspapers virtually always do, and it uses the phrase “sources close to the investigation” without first saying who was investigating the death (ditto).

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

Furthermore: Turn of Mind won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for a book about health or medicine.

Published: July 2011 (Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover edition), May 2012 (Grove paperback, forthcoming)

Editor: Elisabeth Schmitz

Read an excerpt from Turn of Mind.

You can  follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. Jan  is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2012 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:59 am
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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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