One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

March 14, 2015

‘Understanding Shakespeare’ on DVD – World-Class Analysis

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 pm
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Iago was a voyeur and other perspectives on Shakespeare’s tragedies

Understanding Shakespeare Series. Four-pack DVD set: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. With Shakespeare scholars Michael J. B. Allen, A. R. Braunmuller, and Suzanne Collier. Cerebellum Corporation, 4 hours, varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

Wouldn’t it be great if you could watch Shakespeare’s plays in the company of experts who explained as you went along the meaning of scenes you might misinterpret? In fact, you can.

Each DVD in the Understanding Shakespeare series contains an abbreviated version of a tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello or Romeo and Juliet — in the form of key scenes starring classically trained actors in costume on barebones sets. After you watch a scene, a moderator and three internationally known scholars discuss the meaning of important lines and how they fit into the plot and themes. Why does Shakespeare call Romeo and Juliet a pair of “star-cross’d lovers”? (This is a play about predestination.) What is Macbeth “about”?  (In part, a power-mad man egged on by his wife.) Why does Iago urge Othello to strangle Desdemona in her bed instead of poisoning her? (He’s “a voyeur” in a play about sexual jealousy.) The engaging back-and-forth between enacted scenes and analysis by experts sets this series apart from videos about Shakespeare that give one professor’s perspective or comment on undepicted scenes — an experience that, if you don’t know a play, can be a bit like listening to play-by-play commentary on a Super Bowl you haven’t seen.

At times the panelists make points that may be familiar to anyone who has taken a class in the Bard. But these articulate scholars find an appealing middle ground between the twin evils of dumbing-down and pedantry — none more so than the brilliant Michael Allen, the distinguished UCLA humanities professor, whose clarity and breadth of knowledge suggest why he has earned many honors for his teaching and scholarship.

One-Minute Book Reviews has brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by the professional critic Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for more commentary on books.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2015

Love in the Time of Yoga Pants — Jenny Offill’s ‘Dept. of Speculation’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:37 pm
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A Brooklyn mother wonders how she became “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day” after her husband has an affair

Dept. of Speculation. By Jenny Offill. Vintage Contemporaries, 192 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Adultery is God’s way of telling you that you need a divorce, an old joke says. In contemporary fiction, it’s often a sign that you need to take up yoga and see a therapist. Jenny Offill turns that literary cliché into a sophisticated portrait of a Brooklyn mother blindsided by her husband’s affair in this brief, elliptical novel.

Offill’s unnamed narrator is a neurotic and demanding author and writing teacher who has the mix of insecurity and grandiosity that bedevils so many artists. “I hate often and easily,” she says. She scorns people “who sit with their legs splayed” and who “claim to give 110 percent.” When her husband takes up with an “easier” woman to handle, she appears to have no coherent set of religious, cultural, or philosophical views to sustain her and tries to cope by gathering the shards of insight that she finds in diverse beliefs or practices — Judaism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Manichaeism, cosmology, self-help books and yoga classes. In middle-age, she’s still making herself up as she goes along. How, she wonders, has she become “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day”?

A drastic step eases her turmoil but begs the question of why, throughout adulthood, she has found herself in the predicaments she has. The belated revelation that her mother died when she was young and her “father was elsewhere” is a throwaway. But her daughter is an enduring consolation. You never doubt her love for a child who, while nursing, would stare at her “with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

Jan is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for news of other reviews.

Best line: “How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Worst line: The narrator’s comment on her and her sister’s childhood: “Their mother died when they were young. Their father was elsewhere.” These sentences, in context, tell you so little that you wonder if they reflect the misguided suggestion of an editor or other reader who believed the book needed something to explain its heroine’s neediness. Dept. of Speculation might well have benefited from that, but Offill is telling, not showing, in these lines.

Published: January 2014 (Knopf hardcover). October 2014 (Vintage Contemporaries paperback).

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 2, 2015

‘The Fall’ – A Father’s Memoir of His Son’s Cerebral Palsy

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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Landscape and architecture affect the destiny of a child with a disability

The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps. By Diogo Mainardi. Translated by from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Other Press, 169 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Diogo Mainardi had the good and bad luck to have a son who, though born with cerebral palsy caused by a doctor’s negligence, “infected me with his cosmic optimism.” A Brazilian author who lives in Venice, he tells Tito’s story with elegant restraint in this book-length lyric essay that shows through his child’s life how landscape and architecture shape destiny. His son was happy in Italy but gained confidence in Rio de Janeiro, where the family moved after a neurologist told them that children with cerebral palsy “needed to be in touch with the sand, the earth, the water.” The sand on the beach at Ipanema cushioned Tito’s falls: He could fall “without grazing his knees or smashing his teeth.” Mainardi offers no advice to parents of children with disabilities in this memoir, divided into 424 sections representing the number of steps his son can take without help, but the joy on Tito’s face in the photos speaks for itself.

You can follow Jan on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She is a novelist and award-winning journalist who was the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Best line: “If, as John Ruskin argued, the architecture of a place really does have the power to shape the destiny of its inhabitants, then I could say that the façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco shaped the birth of Tito.”

Worst line: “I never worshipped God,” Mainardi writes on page 57. “ I never worshipped Man. But I began to worship Tito.” That’s a bit coy — leaving as it does the impression that the author worshipped nothing before his son’s birth — when Mainardi writes later in the book: “[Tito’s] cerebral palsy obscured everything I had always worshipped. In particular, literature.”

Published: 2012 (first Portuguese edition, from Editora Record, in Brazil). 2014 (first English edition, from Harvill Secker, in England).

You may also want to read: Born Twice, Giuseppe Pontiggia’s novel about a father whose son who suffered brain damage at birth, which may have influenced The Fall.

Read more about book at the Complete Review, which has links to noteworthy reviews of The Fall.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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