One-Minute Book Reviews

March 13, 2016

What Made ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ So Influential? Quote of the Day / James McPherson

Filed under: Civil War,Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:15 pm
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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, as James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom, “the most influential indictment of slavery of all time.” But today it’s more widely known than read. What made it so influential? McPherson writes:

“Written in the sentimental style made popular by best-selling women novelists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin homed in on the breakup of families as the theme most likely to pluck the heartstrings of middle-class readers who cherished children and spouses of their own. Eliza fleeing across the ice-choked Ohio River to save her son from the slave-trader and Tom weeping for children left behind in Kentucky when he was sold South are among the most unforgettable scenes in American letters.”

McPherson added:

“Even the heart of an occasional law-and-order man could be melted by the vision of a runaway manacled for return to bondage. Among evangelical Protestants who had been swept into the antislavery movement by the Second Great Awakening, such a vision generated outrage and activism. This was what gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin such astounding success. As the daughter, sister, and wife of Congregational clergymen, Harriet Beecher Stowe had breathed the doctrinal air of sin, guilt, atonement, and salvation since childhood. She could clothe these themes in prose that throbbed with pathos as well as bathos.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour magazine and for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

February 19, 2016

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Antidote to Tuscan Sunburn, ‘My Brilliant Friend’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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At last a book that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend. Book One if the Neapolitan Novels: Childhood, Adolescence. By Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, 331 pp., $17, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is an antidote to Tuscan sunburn. It is a book you can turn to when you’ve read too many memoirs of fragrant olive groves, medieval bell towers, and lovably indolent workers. You need not fear that you will weep as you read about black-truffle pasta made with the freshest ingredients while you’re eating Buitoni shaken into the pot from a box.

51putd03r7l-_sx317_bo1204203200_Elena Ferrante tells a bleak story of two friends whose lives keep converging and diverging as they move from first grade to the end of high school in a mob-infested working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The good Elena, the narrator, is blond, and the bad Lila is black-haired. That echo of stereotypes from myths and legends suggests the nature of the tale.

Ferrante’s writing is nominally in the social realist tradition. But the plot owes a debt to neo-Gothic melodrama, if not soap opera, without the usual supernatural elements. It opens with a mysterious disappearance that is never credibly explained. (Later books in the series may resolve the issue, but in context, it’s a cheat.) From then on the novel unfolds as a grim rush of incidents that befall its young heroines in a city with dead rats on the streets. In an early scene Elena and Lila climb a dark stairwell, a Gothic trope, to the apartment of a shadowy man — “the ogre of fairy tales”– who terrifies children. Over the next decade, the two will make their way in a world of murder, theft, adultery, mob shakedowns, and more. Men embittered by beatings at the hands of their creditors or enemies return home to beat their wives and children, Elena and Lila among them. The childhood friends become links in “a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs,” all leavened by little kindness and less love. If many books about Italy imply that “the Italians know how to live,” this is the rare novel that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend involves so much of children that the novel should be a moving — if not heartbreaking — coming-of-age tale. Overseas newspapers have said that Neapolitan women have wept on seeing their lives on its pages. But it’s hard to admire the industrious but charmless narrator, Elena, or her foil, the defiant Lila, who has a malicious streak. The novel doesn’t linger on their trials long enough to evoke the deep sympathy for their plight merits. It’s always racing off to describe the next misery. You never fully see why Elena remains in emotional thrall to her childhood playmate long after she has begun to see her friend’s faults and to move out into the world while Lila remains tethered to their neighborhood. Like a good Gothic novel, this book is a gripping horror story with characters whose actions often defy belief.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Best line: Lila tells a violent suitor that “to call him an animal was to insult animals.”

Worst line: “As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Tim Parks, one of best living writers on Italy, describes the “lazy writing” in the paragraph: “Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: ‘Harsh, fierce sounds’; ‘One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood’; insults are ‘hurled.’ The memory is ‘for me still unbearable’ though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten.”

About the author: Elena Ferrante is a pen name for one or more authors who may or may not be female and may or may not live in Italy.

Published: First Italian edition, 2012; first U.S. edition

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

February 5, 2016

Female Spies in the Civil War — Beyond Notes in the Fruitcake

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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When knitting with a Morse code–based pattern was women’s work

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. By Karen Abbott. HarperCollins, 513 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

A hoop skirt can hide a lot of secrets, not all of them sexual. Female spies for both the North and South made unique contributions to the Civil War by taking advantage of the voluminous clothing and other encumbrances of their sex, including the belief that they would pursue activities no riskier than rolling bandages or mending uniforms.

61r9btq72rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Karen Abbott tells the stories of four of these women and their accomplices, who operated mainly in Virginia and Washington, D.C, from 1861–1865. Their strategies included seducing enemy officers, knitting tapestries in a pattern based on Morse code, and arranging for the delivery of a fruitcake that had a secret letter baked into it instead of apples and raisins. One woman disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not surprisingly, she impersonated a female peddler with aplomb as she sneaked past Rebel lines in an attempt to gather facts for Gen. George McClellan about the strength of Confederate forces in Richmond.

These spies’ stories make for such lively reading that you wish you could believe every word of them. Abbott says that she hasn’t invented dialogue but has “extrapolated” her characters’ thoughts from sources such as their letters or diaries or others’ books. In other words, she’s guessed.

Abbott also makes the dubious assertion that her subjects were “the war’s unsung heroes.” That description certainly fits the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who used her Richmond mansion as a base for daring efforts to support the Union. To a lesser degree the label applies to Emma Edmondson, who masqueraded as a man in the 2d Michigan Infantry before she deserted. But what of the Confederate spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who spent their formidable energy and courage on an unjust cause? Even ardent feminists may have trouble finding an “unsung hero” in Greenhow, who wrote, while in Bermuda on her way to London on a mission for Jefferson Davis: “The negroes are lazy, vicious, and insubordinate.” It’s much easier to admire Van Lew, whose spy ring proved so effective that Ulysses Grant thanked her in a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Best line: Elizabeth Van Lew lent her servant Mary Jane Bowser to the wife of Jefferson Davis so that the Union would have a spy in the house of the Confederate president. When Mary Jane had gathered vital information, “she hung a red shirt on the laundry line” as a signal for Elizabeth to collect it. The book abounds with such memorable details.

Worst line: An echo of Seinfeld in a book about the Civil War: A Union soldier gave Belle Boyd a pistol that she “planned to regift to Stonewall Jackson.” Liar Temptress Soldier Spy also descends at times overwrought prose, such as: “All the breath rushed out of her and she felt turned inside out, whipped like laundry on a line.” Obviously, if all the breath “rushed out of her,” she couldn’t “feel turned inside out,” because she’d be dead.

About the author: Karen Abbott is a journalist who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

Second opinion: Jonathan Yardley reviewed Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for the Washington Post.

Published: 2014

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2015

Celebrating the Joys of a Decade of Beach Walks

Filed under: Nature,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:42 pm
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Meditations on the everyday appeal of a favorite beach

A Decade of Beach Walks. By George Thatcher. Quail Ridge Press, 239 pages, $12.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has seen too many used condoms and empty Red Bull cans on American beaches will find a gentle antidote in A Decade of Beach Walks. In this book George Thatcher collects more than 200 of the popular Scenes from the Beach columns that he has written since 2007 for the Sun Herald in Biloxi. Each entry consists of a brief, illustrated meditation on an inspiring sight he has seen during one of his daily walks along Mississippi Sound, such as a blue heron, a scallop shell, or a cluster of acorn barnacles. Thatcher focuses on the enduring charms of the beach, not on the damage that careless visitors do, but when piercing winds blow, he reminds us that Emily Dickinson was right: “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught / Without her diadem.”

Please follow Jan on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

May 1, 2015

After ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ Frances Mayes Goes Home — Southern Reading

Filed under: Book Reviews,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 pm
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The first in a series of occasional reviews of books about the American South 

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. By Frances Mayes. Broadway, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Frances Mayes grew up in the one-mile-square town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, where one woman kept a coffin in her living room and another was a kleptomaniac “whose husband was billed quietly” for items she pilfered. This memoir describes her childhood and her move back to the South after the Italian sojourn that inspired her Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes deals bluntly with the pre-civil-rights era injustices she observed, such as a tradition at her university that Chi Omegas “didn’t date the Jewish boys.” And if her writing about the food, weather and landscape of the region is overheated — when the sun rises over the ocean, “the wobbling golden orb hoists out of the water” — it is rich in detail. However stifled she felt as a child, Mayes conveys a deep affection for the aspects of the South that she still loves now that she lives in North Carolina — “the mellow southern winter, the humane pace, and the sweet green beauty of the land.”

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2015

Do Authors Benefit From Having Unusual Names? Quote of the Day / Willa Cather

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 pm
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Do authors benefit from having unusual names? If so, T. Coraghessan Boyle would outsell Stephen King. But the myth persists. And Willa Cather — whose name rhymes with “rather” but regularly heard bookstore clerks pronounce it “Kay-thur” — lamented its tenacity. Cather wrote in a letter collected in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf, 2013):

“It is all nonsense that an unusual name is an advantage in authorship. One had much better be named Jones. Salesmen in New York and Chicago always correct me when I pronounce my own name.”

April 11, 2015

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ As a Gospel Allegory – Quote of the Day

Filed under: Fiction,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:33 pm
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What is To Kill a Mockingbird “about”? Harper Lee responded indirectly in a letter to the Richmond (Va.) News-Leader after a school board had banned her novel as “immoral”: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

Lee’s friend Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University historian, elaborated on the idea in an interview about Lee’s forthcoming Go Set a Watchman. “She wouldn’t consider herself a conventional Christian,” Flynt told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register. But in a sense, he said, she wrote a Christian book in To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s about a fundamental set of Christian beliefs,” Flynt said. “It’s an allegorical tale of the gospel.”

April 3, 2015

The Best Book of Bible Stories for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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Egermeier CoverA perennial favorite includes many tales left out of other collections

EGERMEIER’S BIBLE STORY BOOK: Fifth Edition. Stories by Elsie E. Egermeier. Story Revision by Arlene S. Hall. Illustrated by Clive Uptton. Warner Press, 640 pp., varied prices. Ages 3–adult.

By Janice Harayda

Children’s Bible-story books tend to be highlight reels. They tell a scattering of tales connected loosely or not at all — those of Noah’s Ark, Moses in the bulrushes, Jesus’ birth and resurrection, and a perhaps dozen or two others. This episodic approach may have benefits at bedtime, but it fails to convey that the Bible tells a larger story of how God has revealed himself, in words and actions, over time.

A timeless antidote is Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. The fifth edition tells all of the major stories of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation — a total of 321 tales, each with its own title — and has virtues that go beyond its wide scope. Its tone is conversational but not dumbed-down, which is well suited to reading aloud, and it retains the spirit of the original biblical texts even in its most generous paraphrases. (“Lot moved toward Sodom. … What a mistake!”) Frequent quotations from the King James or other versions add depth and are usually simple enough for 3- and 4-year-olds to understand. (“Let there be light.” “His name is John.”) The painter Clive Uptton supports the respectful vision of authors Elsie Egermeier and Arlene Hall in his 121 full-page color illustrations: His picture of the crucifixion depicts shadowy forms on three crosses in the distance, not the bloodied close-ups that sometimes upset children.

All of this makes Egermeier’s Bible Story Book resemble — appropriately for its age group — a grand adventure story more than a collection of moral tales. It brims with turbulent events often left out of Bible-story collections: a shipwreck, an earthquake, a victory by thousands of men led into battle by the prophet Deborah. It may not have a snow queen, but it has more than enough action to satisfy many young fans of Frozen. And it is full-bodied enough for adults looking for an easier substitute that Bible-as-history course they never in college, or just an introduction to stories left out of the Old or New Testament highlight reels of their own childhoods.

This review applies only to the fifth edition pictured above. Other editions may differ.

Best line/picture: “At its heart, the Bible is a story – a story of how God has dealt with his people and revealed himself to them across the centuries.” A nice touch by Clive Uptton: a picture of Jesus on page 351 shows, realistically, a tuft of hair on his chest. When have you seen that in Renaissance art?

Worst line: A paraphrase of lines from Luke 7:36–50: “There was a rich man who loaned money to two poor men. To one he loaned 500 pence. To the other he loaned 50.” It’s “lent.”

Published: 1922 (copyright date for first edition, Gospel Trumpet Press), 1969 (revised Warner Press edition).

Furthermore: Egermeier’s Bible Story Book has sold more than two million copies. Unlike many similar volumes, it cites the Bible verses that inspired each of its stories.Without evangelizing, it supports the traditional Christian view that, as the preface notes, Jesus came into the world “to show us what God is like, to live and die and rise again that we might know eternal life.” Elsie Egermeier was a children’s book editor and Sunday School teacher.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 28, 2015

Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’ — An Earthbound Tale of a Historic Flight

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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An acclaimed novelist can’t repent of his research into historical events 

TransAtlantic: A Novel. By Colum McCann. Random House, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Henry James couldn’t offer a thought in his letters without pinning a flower in its buttonhole, the biographer Leon Edel once said. He could also ”disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.”

Column McCann shows similar tendencies in TransAtlantic. His fastidious writing grows distractingly overripe in a novel that reveals how three widely separated historical events affect the Irish maid Lily Duggan and several generations of her descendants. Each woman’s life has a connection, however tenuous, to the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, made by the British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919; to a trip to Ireland by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1845; and to the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in Belfast in 1998 after negotiations overseen by the U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

McCann is an earnest writer and prodigious researcher, and he works hard to develop the theme that human lives consist of incidents that lay “at odd angles to each other,” shaped by larger forces. But his tendency to overwrite runs away with him, as do his stylistic devices: using dashes instead of quotation marks, skipping back and forth in time, describing long-past events in the present tense, and breaking up ideas into clipped, verbless sentences, often in groups of three. (“Cloud. Storm. Forecast.” “The nineteenth floor. Glass and high ceilings. The windows slightly open.”) McCann doesn’t say “dawn broke” when he could say “A blanket of dark had been lifted from Brown Street” or “Dawn unlocked the morning in increments of gray.”

Overwriting especially undermines a section that amounts to a valentine to Mitchell and his work to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In describing one of the envoy’s peace missions to Belfast, McCann lists the snacks in the British Airways VIP lounge at Kennedy airport: “small neat sandwiches, biscuits, cashews.” He then gives every in-flight meal option that Mitchell had, presumably in first class: “lobster bisque, garden salad, chicken cordon bleu, Asian noodles, beef tenderloin, mushroom risotto.” And he goes on to say, after Mitchell deplanes in London, that a British Midland lounge offered three items: “Tea, pastries, yogurt.”

What purpose does this surfeit of detail serve? In a historical novel, such facts can help to evoke a time and place. But TransAtlantic, which ends in 2011, isn’t a historical novel in the usual sense. It makes no difference to its story whether British Midland had pastries and yogurt in its lounge or, say, muffins and fruit. Such details are the sign that McCann can’t repent of his research, or perhaps of his access to Mitchell and his wife, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments for their “great grace” in allowing him to tell part of their story. And what are we to make the occasional eruptions of bad writing, such as “There were so many sides to every horizon”?

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of TransAtlantic is the listless plot. McCann weaves the warp of his female characters’ lives so loosely into the weft of his big events that his story barely coheres. The thread that ostensibly unites all of the plotlines is a mysterious, sealed letter that Arthur Brown carries on his trailblazing flight at the request of Lily Duggan’s granddaughter. Its envelope remains unopened for nearly a century. And it isn’t giving away too much to say that when it is finally unsealed, the letter holds no secrets or significant revelations. It’s so anti-climactic that it almost turns all that has come before it into a high-toned shaggy-dog story. That development may support the theme that our lives connect “at odd angles,” but it isn’t what the preceding pages have led you expect. The best endings in fiction, it’s often said, are surprising yet inevitable. The last pages of TransAtlantic are surprising only for their lack of inevitability.

Best line: “He was told once that any good Irishman would drive 50 miles out of his way just to hear an insult – a hundred miles if the insult was good enough.”

Worst line: “There were so many sides to every horizon.” A horizon doesn’t have “sides.”

Published: June 2013 (Random House hardcover). May 2014 (Random House paperback).

About the author: McCann won a 2009 National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin.

Read an excerpt and learn more about TransAtlantic on the Random House website.

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews by the professional critic by Janice Harayda, who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

March 20, 2015

‘A Train in Winter’ – French Women Who Resisted the Nazis

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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True stories of women whose anti-Nazi activities led to their deportation to Auschwitz

A Train Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. By Caroline Moorehead. HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $15.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1943, a train arrived at Auschwitz bearing 230 French women who had resisted the Nazi occupation of their country. Most were not Jews, and because of it, the members of the group fared better than other female prisoners. They were not executed on arrival and could eventually write to their families and receive packages.

The women on the train, many of them communists, nonetheless suffered desperately and witnessed savagery at close range. One night Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a photojournalist who had worked for anti-Nazi publications, heard terrible cries. The next day, she learned “that because the gas chambers had run out of Zyklon B pellets, the smaller children had been thrown directly onto the flames.”

Caroline Moorehead, an English journalist, tells the stories of Vaillant-Couturier and other passengers on the train known as Convoy No. 31000 in a popular history that begins with their Resistance work and follows them through the liberation of France. She aims in part to show how the women’s friendships helped them endure Auschwitz and, later, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen. Some of the women clearly did benefit from reciprocal support, but fewer than 50 of 230 survived the camps, showing that female bonds — however strong — were not enough for most.

With its large cast, A Train in Winter has a splintered focus that makes it at times hard to follow. But its deglamorized portrayal of Resistance work is a fine antidote to Hollywood stereotypes of that movement. This book will enlighten anyone who believes that resisters consisted mainly of handsome young men listening to encoded wireless broadcasts in cozy farmhouses in the French countryside.

Best line: The commandant of Auschwitz lamented in his memoirs that people couldn’t understand that he “had a heart and was not evil,” Moorehead reports.

Worst line: Natasha Lehrer noted in a review in the TLS that the name of the anthropologist Germaine Tillion is “unfortunately misspelled throughout, including in the index, where a cursory glance might suggest that she was related to the politician and resistant Charles Tillon,” who also appears in A Train in Winter.

Published: November 2011 (HarperCollins hardcover), October 2012 (HarperPerennial paperback).

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow Jan on Twitter @janiceharayda for her tweets on books.

 © 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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