One-Minute Book Reviews

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2011

Edith Wharton’s Comedy of Manners and Morals in Post–Civil War New York, ‘The Age of Innocence’

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“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”

The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.

Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.

The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”

The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.

In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”

Worst line: Newland Archer  sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.

Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 3, 2011

Women, Age and Hollywood – Quote of the Day From Tracey Jackson’s ‘Between and Rock and a Hot Place: Why 50 Is Not the New 30’

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Screenwriter Tracey Jackson talks about women in film and television in her new Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty Is Not the New Thirty (Harper, 287 pp., $25.99):

“In Hollywood 30 is considered 80, especially where women are concerned. This attitude tends to affect actresses first, but the second group on its hit list is usually writers, particularly those who write comedy, a genre not very friendly to women to begin with. …

“As in every profession, there are exceptions to the rule, and one of the biggest exceptions, if not the biggest, is that if you are a superstar in your field by the time you are 50, you can skid forward to at least 60. … You can run down a list of women in their 50s and 60s in top jobs, but I promise you every one of them was a superstar in her world by no later than 45. The general consensus seems to be that if you haven’t made it by then, the chances are you aren’t going to, so why keep you around?”

September 13, 2010

On Not Making Coffee – Quote of the Day / From ‘News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Laurie Hertzel began her 18-year career at the Duluth News Tribune in 1976, the year Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor of a network newscast. But such milestones had yet to open many doors for women at the Minnesota newspaper. Male reporters still wrote most of the stories, and the chief photographer was a man who had spent time in a German prison in World War II and made his way to America with his life savings hidden in an accordion.

Hertzel recalls her experiences at the News Tribune in News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, a lively new memoir from the University of Minnesota Press. In this excerpt she tells what happened after she learned that she was supposed to make coffee for her male colleagues:

“I might have been timid, but I had a strong sense of fairness. I didn’t drink coffee, so I saw no good reason why it should be my responsibility. Also, it was logistically complicated. The only place with a sink deep enough to hold the coffee urn was the men’s bathroom. There was a women’s restroom on our floor, but it was a tiny, one-hole affair with a shallow sink, located directly across from the sports department. This meant that every time one of the seven women on the floor had to pee, the sportswriters didn’t just know it, they could hear it. It was a humiliating bathroom for a shy person, and it was of absolutely no use in making coffee.

“To make coffee I had to lug the urn down the hall, pound on the door, yell, ‘Is anybody in there?’ and then go in and fill it up at the big, deep sink, hoping that no guy came in needing to take a whiz, and then stagger with it back down the hall, water sloshing my ankles. This was not something I was inclined to do, so I set about scheming to get out of this responsibility. First, I started bugging guys when they were at their busiest. ‘Can you fill the coffee pot for me? There’s someone in the bathroom.’ They didn’t care to be interrupted when they were on deadline, and they didn’t want to be away from their phones when they were waiting for a call back from a source, so this drove them a little nuts. And then I made coffee … badly. Undrinkably so. In a newsroom, that’s saying a lot. …

“So it wasn’t too long before the responsibility just sort of evaporated, and I could concentrate on the fun stuff … ”

Hertzel, who is books editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tells more about News to Me on her Web site. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/StribBooks and read more excerpts from her memoir on the University of Minnesota Press blog.

July 26, 2010

Wendy Holden’s Novel ‘Beautiful People’ — Trouble in Tuscany

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.

Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?

But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?

Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.

Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.

Published: April 2010

Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.

About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.

Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.

Furthermore: A review of Holden’s entertaining Bad Heir Day appeared on this site Dec. 19, 2006, in a post that also had comments on her Farm Fatale and Simply Divine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 15, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Faults Islam and Multiculturalists in ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 pm
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The author of Infidel returns with an inflammatory polemic

Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Free Press, 304 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of five, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was circumcised with scissors by a man hired by her grandmother. She later fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage and collaborated on a Dutch film about the oppression of Muslim women, which led to death threats and another move – this time, to America.

Hirsi Ali described these and other upheavals in Infidel, a harrowing account of her efforts to forge an independent life after rejecting Islam and the violent culture of her family’s tribe. Nomad is a much less effective book, and not just because it repeats in different form many of the ideas and incidents in that memoir.

In this inflammatory polemic Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is not just a religion but “a violent way of life,” and she condemns its “increasingly dangerous impacts” — a stilted phrase typical of the writing in Nomad — on Western societies. She believes that Muslim immigrants must be required to assimilate, a process that includes respecting the laws of their adopted countries instead of demanding that their crimes be tried in sharia courts. As she describes her conversion from Islam to atheism, she calls for “a massive public effort to reveal, ridicule, revile, and replace” traditional Islamic views, especially those that cast women as property.

To support her arguments, Hirsi Ali draws heavily on the brutality suffered by her family in passages that are among the most vivid in Nomad. She also makes a strong case that honor killings and other crimes against Muslim women exist in the U.S. as well as abroad but that the media play down their religious basis for fear of offending the faithful.

On other subjects, Hirsi Ali oversimplifies or underdocuments her points or extrapolates too freely from her own life. She faults multiculturalists who seek to enable Muslims to preserve their old culture in their adopted countries: “Social workers in the West will tell you that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion for their mental health, because otherwise they will be confused and their self-esteem destroyed. This is untrue.” But there are degrees of “cohesion” and “self-esteem,” and immigrants may suffer as much from cutting all ties to their culture as from cutting none. This kind of either-or logic pervades the book.

Since the publication of Infidel, Hirsi Ali has also become more closely linked to the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that employs her. Some of her causes demand support from liberals and conservatives alike, including her call for an end to honor killings.

But it is unfortunate that after spending much of Nomad arguing that violence against Muslim women should concern everyone, Hirsi Ali faults feminists for not doing more to end it when, in fact, well-known feminists such as Gloria Steinem may have done more than any other group to publicize the problem. Her nearsightedness on this and other issues may alienate many people who share her outrage about honor killings and related crimes.  Infidel – which keeps a tighter focus on her story – makes a better introduction to her work.

Best line: Hirsi Ali says that when she and her family lived in Saudi Arabia, her father and brother often went to a “tribunal of justice” at a spot known as Chop-Chop Square: “There men and boys would take their seats and watch the sinners being punished with stonings, floggings, amputations, or beheadings.”

Worst line: “In fact a certain kind of feminism has worsened things for the female victims of misogyny perpetrated by men of color. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff-Sommers, calls this ‘the feminism of resentment.’”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

You may also want to read: One-Minute Book Reviews also posted a review  of Infidel and a reading group guide to Infidel.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 26, 2010

Girl With a Gun – Deborah Hopkinson’s Sing-Along Picture Book, ‘Stagecoach Sal,’ Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Stagecoach Sal: Inspired by a True Tale. By Deborah Hopkinson. Pictures by Carson Ellis. Disney/Hyperion, 24 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda
“Based on a true story” often masks weaknesses in a plot. It may mean: “Hey, don’t blame us! It really happened that way.” A case in point is Stagecoach Sal, an attractive picture book “inspired” by the life of the first woman to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.

Deborah Hopkinson drew on promising historical material for her tale of a rifle-loving girl who thwarts a bandit intent on stealing the mail she carries on her stagecoach. But the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. Young Sal gets a clear warning from her parents before she sets out alone on a stagecoach to deliver mail: “No passengers!” Sal ignores this sensible advice when accosted at a remote spot by a man she recognizes as a famous poetry-spouting bandit. Instead of driving away, she invites the stranger to ride shotgun on her stagecoach. And you’re never sure why, when she has horses and the man seems to have none: Did she have a rebellious streak? Too much faith in her reputation as “a crack shot”? A misplaced desire to help?

Sal distracts the bandit from his desire to rob her by singing songs, Scheherazade-like, as they ride: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me!” Hopkinson integrates these toe-tappers well into her story. And given the gaps in her plot, the songs – and Carson Ellis’s warm and lively pictures – account for much of the appeal of the book. Stagecoach Sal is no Brave Irene, William Steig’s tale of a girl who plunges into snowstorm to deliver a dress made by her seamstress mother, a book that beautifully evokes its young heroine’s character and struggle. But Hopkinson and Eliis offer an easygoing introduction to several classic folksongs that many children know less well than “Baby Beluga.” And leaky plot ultimately may count for less than the fun of singing at bedtime, “Oh, I went down South / for to see my Sal / singing Polly wolly doodle all the day.”

Best line/picture: Ellis’s fine illustrations include nice touches such as a compass at the bottom of one page, a pig tied to a covered wagon on another.

Worst line/picture: Hopkinson says in an afterword that you can hear “some of Sal’s favorite songs” on the Kids’ Pages of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. True, but frustration awaits anyone who reads that “some” as “all.” I couldn’t find “Sweet Betsy From Pike” after many searches of the recommended site using varied spellings of Betsy, quotations from the lyrics and more. Eventually  the lyrics and part of the music on turned up on Wikipedia.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as is its, on her Fake Book News page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 28, 2009

Spin, Baby, Spin – Sarah Palin’s ‘Going Rogue’ Sets the Record Askew

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“There’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals – right next to the mashed potatoes.” – Sarah Palin in Going Rogue

Going Rogue: An American Life By Sarah Palin. Harper, 413 pp., $28.99.

By Janice Harayda

How desperate was John McCain to rein in Sarah Palin during his failed bid for the U.S. presidency? On the evidence of Going Rogue, desperate enough that a campaign strategist wanted to fly in a nutritionist who would force Palin to go off the Atkins diet and eat only “meals balanced in carbohydrates and nitrates” to see if it would help her stick to the script.

Like much else in this memoir, this anecdote — if true — shows how bizarre American political campaigns have become. But Palin gives such a loopy and self-serving account of the incident that her words are hard to credit fully. She says she wasn’t on the Atkins diet and had no idea why the strategist wanted to hire a nutritionist: “The Atkins bars – that must be it. They were everywhere, in every hotel room and on every snack table along the train. They were great when I didn’t have time to slow down and eat, but I didn’t know why they were all over the place.”

Maybe Palin didn’t know why the bars were everywhere. But something was apparently behind the incident that she can’t or won’t admit. And Going Rogue has so many such one-sided or off-kilter stories – some involving far more serious issues — that a better title for  the book might have been: Spin, Baby, Spin.

With help from the writer Lynn Vincent, Palin gives a colorful account of a childhood that involved eating caribou lasagna and using wooden sidewalks in a frontier community that got television shows on a one-week delay. And she suggests why her state remains unique: “You know you’re an Alaskan when at least twice a year your kitchen doubles as a meat-processing plant.”

But Palin also engages in the same kind of backstabbing she says she faced during the campaign. And she saves some of her most cynical and sarcastic comments for McCain staff members, who she believes failed to appreciate what she could contribute even as they raised her from obscurity to a fame that enabled her to receive a reported $5 million advance for this book. Nancy Pelosi writes in her memoir Know Your Power that she got valuable advice from the former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, who told her: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.” If Pelosi and Boggs are right, Going Rogue bodes poorly for any national political ambitions held by its author: In this book Palin fights as though it were her last fight.

Best line: No. 1: I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals – right next to the mashed potatoes.” [cq “all animals."] “In Alaska, we joke that we have two seasons: construction and winter.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But when the boom went bust, the golden goose still ruled the roost.” No. 2: On how she won the Miss Wasilla pageant, which included a swimsuit competition: “Then I shocked my friends and family, put on a sequined Warrior-red gown, danced the opening numbers, gave the interview, and uncomfortably let my butt be compared to cheerleaders’ butts.” No. 3: “I breathed in the autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.” No. 4: On her lack of freedom as the vice-presidential nominee: “But now I felt like a bit of a captive, pulled away from my loved ones in favor of a ‘higher priority,’ as though in the final analysis there is any such thing.”

Editor: Adam Bellow

Published: November 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 16, 2009

Not by Zweibach Alone – Rhoda Janzen’s Memoir, ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:13 pm
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A daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” goes home

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. Holt, 241 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

A librarian here in New Jersey found recently that books about the Amish now outnumber Amish people.* If the attention this memoir is getting is an indication, Mennonites are the new Amish — a paradox given that Mennonites are, in fact, the old Amish: The Amish tradition arose in the late 17th century as an offshoot of the more liberal Mennonite faith.

Rhoda Janzen is a daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” who returned in middle age to the religious community of her youth. She had left it first for “studded black minis, enormous hair, fuchsia lipstick, and preposterously high Manolos” and then for a career as a poet and English professor. But several events drove her back to California, including a serious car accident and a divorce from her husband of 15 years, who left her for a man he met on Gay.com. She describes her sojourn in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a slangy and often amusing report on her experiences in a land of soft two-tiered buns called Zwiebach, served with homemade rhubarb jam. One experience involved the Mennonite equivalent of a pick-up line. Janzen says that a male rocker once approached her in a supermarket parking lot with: “If you’re a single woman of God, I surely wish you’d e-mail me.”

For a self-declared “grammarian,” Janzen shows a oddly shaking command of the nuances of English usage. She uses “shoe-in” for shoo-in, “timber” for timbre and has a weakness for the cute, which shows up when she tries to explain Mennonite views on sex. “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister,” she writes. “Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” Janzen also seems unwilling or unable to reflect deeply on how her strict upbringing might have fed her decision to stay for so long with an emotionally abusive husband. She says she remained in her marriage because her parents never fought during her childhood and getting divorced “was something other people did” — a explanation that isn’t fully persuasive when she had broken by then with many other Mennonite traditions.

But the tone of the book so breezy, you waft though it. And occasionally Janzen lets you see how perceptive she can be when she drops the shtick and describes her life straight up. One such moment occurs when she reconnects with a friend who, though much like her, had stayed within the Mennonite fold and lived a more conventional life within it:

“Here was Eva, who could have made such different choices with her education and career path. Here was I, with my decades of restless travel, my brilliant but tortured ex-husband. And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nests outside my study window.”

*I couldn’t confirm this, and it may refer to number of copies in print, not titles. There are about 225,000 Amish in the U.S. and more than 170,000 books printed.

Best line: No. 1: Janzen on her mother: “This was a woman who had once departed for Hawaii with a frozen fryer in her suitcase, on the theory that the chicken would be thawed by the time her flight landed in Honolulu.” No. 2: The last lines of the review above.

Worst lines: No. 1: “—she patted her heinie significantly.” No. 2: “Al’s enrollment at St. Veronica’s had not been a shoe-in, but Phil and Hannah had decided that Christian guilt was better than bad math.” No. 3: “ With a pattern of dodgy behavior already established, I was a shoe-in for further scrutiny.” No. 4: “Aaron sang close harmonies in a madrigal group, his rich-timbered baritone blending like butter.” No: 5: “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister. Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” No. 6: “I am woman, hear me pee!” No. 7: “Fresh out of grad school, I agreed to be the faculty adviser to a sorority whose members were commonly referred to as ‘the Campus Hotties’ or ‘the Ones in Deep Doo-Doo for Trashing Four Hotel Rooms Again.”

Furthermore: The Wall Street Journal article “They’re No Bodice-rippers, but Amish Romances Are Hot” has more on the boomlet in books about the Amish. Third Way Café has an answer to: “What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”.

Read an excerpt from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress or find the publisher’s reading group guide.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she will be tweeting this week about topics that will include the National Book Awards to be announced Nov. 18. Comments about those prizes will also be posted on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
– Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

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