One-Minute Book Reviews

August 26, 2007

Snogging and Blogging in Bruna Surfistinha’s ‘The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl’

Raquel Pacheco, a prostitute who worked under the name Bruna Surfistinha, blogged about her clients’ sexual performance

The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl. By Bruna Surfistinha/Raquel Pacheco. Interviewed by Jorge Tarquini. Translated by Alison Entrekin. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

Raquel Pacheco writes about as well as Henry James would have run a brothel. This isn’t surprising given that she was a high school dropout and unknown teenage prostitute in Brazil until she started blogging about her clients’ sexual performance.

Then all hell broke loose – hell being, in this case, a book contract, a movie deal and write-ups in newspapers like the New York Times. But the prose doesn’t exactly sizzle in this memoir of her several years as a prostitute who used the name Bruna Surfistinha (“Bruna the Little Surfer Girl”). (Writing sample: “Yay! Finally someone invited me to a swingers’ club!!!”) Pacheco, now in her early 20s. says she quit prostitution just before her 21st birthday. And her memoir reads the way your high school diary might if you’d had much more sex and kept score in Portuguese, then had your words translated it into British English, so that people kept asking you questions like, “How ’bout a wank?”

Pacheco intersperses tales of turning tricks with details of her well-off but troubled childhood, marked by bulimia, truancy and shoplifting. Partly for this reason, her book isn’t sexy enough to be erotica or single-minded enough to be pornography. Nor does it have much to offer in the way of advice. A brief section of sex tips tells you little more women’s magazines do. (Try different rooms, like the kitchen.) And the advice seems pitched to people decades behind Americans in their views on sex. “Some people think sex should be like in porn films: the guy wildly banging the girl as if he were drilling through asphalt,” she writes. Don’t they get reruns of Sex and the City in Brazil and know how mercilessly that show would have lampooned those people?

Best line: “Love is blind, deaf and mindless. But mute, never.

Worst line (tie): No. 1: “In almost three years in this business, by my count, I think I’ve had sex with more than 1,000 men. In theory it might not sound like a lot …” No. 2: “I’m a Spiritualist, because I believe that on the ‘other side’ there is everything we have here. Even hospitals.”

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

Published: February 2007 (first American edition). June 2007 (paperback edition).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 13, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Marcus Luttrell’s ‘Lone Survivor’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Lone Survivor
The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10

By Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

In 2005 Marcus Luttrell set out with three other U.S. Navy SEALs to capture an al Qaeda leader hiding on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Luttrell and his unit soon became engaged in a fierce firefight with Taliban soldiers that he alone survived. He tells his story in his memoir, Lone Survivor, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Questions for Readers

1. Military books don’t usually become immediate bestsellers unless they have famous authors, such as Private Jessica Lynch or General Colin Powell. Lone Survivor reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list quickly even though Marcus Luttrell was little-known. Why do you think accounts for this? What drew you to the book? What do you think attracted others to it?

2. Luttrell is the son of Texas horse ranchers and had something of a cowboy childhood. For example, his father taught him to shoot a .22-caliber rifle at the age of seven. [Page 51] Is Lone Survivor a kind of cowboy story? Why or why not?

3. At times Luttrell rails against what he calls “the liberal media.” But you might wonder whether he means “the liberal media” as opposed to “the conservative media” or “the media in general, which tend to be liberal.” What do you think he meant? Does it matter to his story?

4. Luttrell says that on an earlier assignment in Iraq, he realized that some people thought “we who put our lives on the line for our nation at the behest of our government should be charged with murder for shooting our enemy.” They included “the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line.” [Page 37] Was this a fair comment when so many reporters are embedded with troops? Why or why not?

5. Luttrell also lashes out against provisions of the Geneva Conventions that prevent civilians from becoming targets of attacks. He argues that these are unfair in wars such the one SEALs were fighting in Afghanistan, because soldiers often disguise themselves as civilians. [Page 367 and elsewhere] How well does Luttrell make his case against some provisions of the Conventions?

6. Nations clearly have several options if some provisions of the Geneva Conventions don’t work in wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq: 1) Obey all the provisions, even those put soldiers’ lives at risk; 2) Ignore provisions that would endanger soldiers (even if this would anger other countries); 3) Don’t get involved in wars that would require soldiers to make such choices. Luttrell seems to favor a variation on the second option: Either repeal some provisions or allow soldiers to disregard them. Which option makes most sense to you?

7. Some of America’s greatest books involve sole survivors of disasters. These include Moby-Dick. (Its epilogue includes a line from the Book of Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”) What accounts for the appeal of these survival narratives? Do Americans tend to see themselves as “alone” in some fundamental way and identify with their characters? Or is something else at work?

8. In an interview with the New York Times, Luttrell said his main goal in writing Lone Survivor was to tell the story of the SEALs who did not survive. ”Now I think the American public knows who they are, and now they are forever immortalized,” he said. ”Their memory will never die out, and that’s what I wanted.” [“He Lived to Tell the Tale (And Write a Best Seller), by Motoko Rich, in the New York Times, Aug 9, 2007, page E1.] Did he achieve his goal? Do you agree that his friends’ memory “will never die”?

9. Many studies have shown that schoolchildren today have trouble identifying major battles of the Civil War or World War II, let alone their winners, losers, and individual participants. In that context, do you think that people will remember Operation Redwing years from now? Or will they forget it after other military memoirs appear? Why or why not? What does your answer say to you about our country?

10. Luttrell says early in his book, “I am not a political person.” [Page 39] After reading Lone Survivor, do you agree? Why or why not?

Vital statistics:

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. By Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Little Brown, 249 pp., $24.99. First American edition: June 2007.

Links: You can read an excerpt and listen to a podcast at You can learn about other military books by Patrick Robinson at

Your book group may also want to read:

Return With Honor (Doubleday, 1995). By Captian Scott O’Grady with Jeff Coplon. This gripping bestseller tells the true story of a U.S. Air Force caption who was shot down while enforcing a NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1995 and eluded capture for six days until rescued by Marines. Return With Honor lacks the angry political rhetoric of Lone Survivor, and for that reason, some people may prefer it to Luttrell’s book.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept free books from editors, publishers or agents, and all or her reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


July 26, 2007

Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘The Adversary’: The Best True Crime Book of the Decade?

What makes a man capable of feeding his children cocoa puffs and milk before murdering them?

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Picador, 191 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Does reading the New York Times Book Review on Sundays feel like a penance to you? Consider switching to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It has a small but superb book review section, distinguished especially by a feature called “Five Best” in which a different expert each week picks and describes the five best books on a subject.

The “experts” aren’t usually the people you might expect, literary critics and English professors. But they do hit the mark week after week. A case in point: On Memorial Day weekend Sen. John McCain chose his five favorite books about “soldiers in wartime.” And who could disagree with his choice of, for example, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last month the Journal listed the five best books about “the criminal mind,” selected by Theodore Dalrymple, the pen name for the astringent British psychiatrist and former prison doctor Anthony Daniels. Again, bingo.

Dalrymple’s choices included perhaps the best true crime book of the decade: Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, the story of a middle-class Frenchman and the “pride of his village” who led a double life. After failing to complete medical school, Jean-Claude Romand married, had two children, and stayed close to his parents, all the while passing himself off as a respected doctor with the World Health Organization, just across the border in Geneva. Romand kept up the pose for more than 17 years, supporting his family by embezzling money from relatives and others. When exposure became certain, he could see no way out except to murder his wife, children, and parents.

Yet this remarkable – and remarkably elegant story – has a depth absent from similar accounts on American news shows. Carrère does not focus on the minutiae of evidence or the grandstanding of lawyers. One question above all interests him: How could a man keep up such a monstrous fiction, including feeding his children cocoa puffs with milk before murdering them in their beds? The answer has social, financial, psychological and religious dimensions, all artfully woven into fewer than 200 pages. And the implications extend far beyond Roman’s village – you could say, all the way to Virginia Tech.

Best line: “The father had been shot in the back, the mother full in the chest. Certainly she – perhaps both of them – had known that they were dying at the hands of their son … The priest promised [at their funeral] that now they saw God. For believers, the moment of death is the moment when one sees God no longer through a glass darkly but face-to-face. Even nonbelievers believe in something of the sort, that in the instant of passing to the other side, the dying see the movie of their whole lives flash by, its meaning clear at last. And this vision that should have brought the elderly Romands the joy of accomplishment had been the triumph of deception and evil. They should have seen God and in his place they had seen, taking on the features of their beloved son, the one the Bible calls Satan, ‘the adversary.'”

Worst line: None

Recommendation? A great book-club book. And Holt has given it an exemplary reading group guide. It’s the only reading group guide I’ve seen that actually suggests other books you might want to read as well … even if they weren’t published by Holt. This is shocking by the standards of the self-absorbed guides of most publishers, who rarely suggest that you buy a book by another firm.

Reading group guide:

Published: 2000 (First American edition), January 2002 (Picador paperback).

Furthermore: Dalrymple’s “Five Best” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 2007, page P8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 23, 2007

A Great Biography of the Editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe

My head is too full of Harry Potter to post a review today, so I’ll just mention a favorite book that I hope to say more about later. A. Scott Berg won a 1979 National Book Award for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, his definitive and eloquent biography of the great editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe. And both the honor and the book aced the test of time. The California-based Berg may be better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lindbergh. But Max Perkins, his masterpiece, is a much better book. If you enjoy literary biographies and haven’t read this one, you’re in for a treat.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 12, 2007

‘Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art. By Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pp. $48.

What it is: A biography of the great American realist Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), known partly for family scenes influenced by the work of French painters Vuillard and Bonnet. Porter was the brother of the photographer Eliot Porter and the husband of the poet Anne Porter. This biography has 27 color reproductions of his paintings and many black-and-white photographs or other illustrations.

How much I read: I read about a third of the book and skimmed much of the rest.

Why I stopped: I picked up this biography mainly because I wanted to learn more about Anne Porter, whose Living Things: Collected Poems (Steerforth, 2006) I admired and reviewed on March 28, 2007 But Fairfield Porter is such an intelligent book that I read more than planned. A contributor to Artforum, Justin Spring writes with a neo-classical restraint that is all the more admirable because it so rare in modern biographies of artists. He tells you exactly what you need to know and no more, even when dealing with his Porter’s bisexuality and other subjects that could have led to sensationalism. Without special pleading, he makes a quietly persuasive case that Porter was perhaps the major American artist of his century. I stopped reading only because this book deserved more time than I had to give.

Best line in what I read: Spring gives wonderfully evocative details of the places where the Porters lived or vacationed – Manhattan, Southampton, Great Spruce Head Island. Spring writes that, soon after their wedding in 1932, Anne and Fairfield Porter took rooms at the Hotel Brevoort in Greenwich Village:

“The Brevoort, despite the Depression and the many bohemian socialists lingering in its café, still had a certain grandeur. Anne Porter recalled that at breakfast the management required her young husband to wear a tie at the table and that the waiter presented an egg for her inspection before sending it to the kitchen for soft-boiling.”

I also love a line that involves Fairfield Porter’s wake. He was laid out in the dining room of the family home in Southampton. Artist Jane Freilicher said that Anne told her that a friend had asked if she wanted a Valium. “Why on earth would anyone not want to have feelings at a time like this?” Anne said she replied.

Worst line: None.

Recommended? To serious readers interested in 20th-century American art. This is not a catalog but a full-strength biography.

Published: December 1999

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 9, 2007

Review of Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:57 am
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The former editor of Vanity Fair remembers when The King and I met Rebecca

The Diana Chronicles. By Tina Brown. Doubleday, 542 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where, Tina Brown tells us, she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” Her next school didn’t seem to do much more to develop her mind – the only admissions requirement was “neat handwriting.”

With sharp observations like these, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in this biography of the Princess Diana. She tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s overall character and motivations. And what she does say often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is miles better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but also because it finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography.

Each chapter reads like an article in Vanity Fair – sleek, glossy and full of higher gossip. Brown tends to focus on style instead of substance, even when writing about people like prime minister Tony Blair. In a typical passage she says that Cherie Blair hated the couple’s visits to the queen at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands and ascribes this to an allergy to “the fur and feathers of the stuffed animals and hunting trophies” on the castle walls. She doesn’t mention the larger reason why the prime minister’s wife may have loathed the visits: The Highlands are a hotbed of anti-Blair sentiment and a place where, even at the height of his popularity, her husband could be expect to be booed. Brown writes much more persuasively about the Diana’s relations with the press and shows that these were more complex and less worshipful than is generally assumed, especially after the princess worked with freelancer Morton on Diana: Her True Story instead of one of the newspaper reporters who had covered her regularly.

What did all of it mean to Britain? In her last chapter, Brown says that Tony Blair told her, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.” Brown agrees, calling the change a “gift” that reflected Diana’s “emotional intelligence.” But the rest of her book undercuts this conclusion. Again and again, Brown casts Diana as a woman who was at times warm and compassionate and at other times needy, dishonest, self-absorbed and so flaky that she was an easy mark for New Age charlatans with crystal balls and astrological charts.

No doubt there is truth in both images. But if Diana exemplified “a new way to be British,” it is hard to know which version of her the country absorbed. And it is easy to see why some people might long for the “old way” exemplified by women like Victoria Liddard, who died at the age of 102, just before the Waleses separated. After demonstrating for women’s suffrage in 1912, Liddard was sentenced to two months of hard labor and kept in a cell that contained only a straw mattress on a board. She was undaunted, according to an obituary in the Telegraph. “She kept her spirits up,” the newspaper said, “by singing at the top of her voice through a high cell window.”

Best line: “While the world was thrilling to the spectacle of Diana’s life as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, her home life was becoming more like something out of Hitchcock. Under a King and I façade lurked a Rebecca–like sinister melodrama.” The Diana Chronicles has many memorable phrases like this one that, given how things turned out, seem less overheated than they might in another biography.

Worst line: “Paul Burrell’s two memoirs, too, have much touching detail to commend them.” Entertainment Weekly summed up the most recent in five words — “smarmy butler dishes more dirt” – and named it one of the five worst books of 2006. And many things that Brown asserts as fact are neither believable nor supported by end notes that would have bolstered their credibility. One example: She tells us while discussing the birth of Prince Harry that the Windsors typically had first a boy and then a girl: “Diana was so reluctant to be different that, even though she knew after her amniocentesis test in 1984 that she was carrying a boy, she had failed to share that information with her husband.” She doesn’t offer a clue to how she knows this.

Editor: Phyllis Grann

Published: June 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Marjorie Hart’s Memoir, ‘Summer at Tiffany’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Summer at Tiffany
By Marjorie Hart

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or use the address on the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to request permission to reproduce it.

In the summer of 1945 Marjorie Hart and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa set out, like Dorothy and Toto, for New York City, determined to find work as salesgirls. Turned down by Lord & Taylor, they talked their way into jobs as the first female pages at Tiffany & Co. Now in her 80s, Hart describes that experience in Summer at Tiffany, an affectionate memoir of Manhattan just before and after V-J Day.

Questions for Readers

1. Marjorie Hart seems to feel only gratitude that she and her friend Marty had the opportunity to work Tiffany’s in the summer of 1945. “We had to be the luckiest girls in town to be part of the Tiffany family and watch the curtain open to the toniest display of jewelry in the world.” [Page 34] Based on what she tells you about herself in her book, what do you think accounts for her sunnyside-up view of life? Do you think it has to do with her generation, her small-town Midwestern background or something else?

2. Many bestselling memoirs and biographies are what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or books that focus on the pathological. Why do you think Hart was able to get Summer at Tiffany published when it’s so different from memoirs like Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors? What makes her story enjoyable?

3. The end of World War II received more coverage than any previous event and continues to inspire books, movies, and TV shows. It also resulted in one of the most famous photographs of the century, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor and nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. What did Summer at Tiffany tell you about that event (and the days just before and after it) that you hadn’t learned from other media?

3. Hart tells us up front that she has taken liberties with her story. She writes: “In some cases composite characters have been created or timelines have been compressed in order to further preserve the privacy of dear friends and maintain the narrative flow.” [Page vi] Could you see evidence of this in her story? Where?

4. Using composites characters or scenes in nonfiction is controversial. Some journalists say you should never use these. Others say it’s okay if a) you tell readers up front that you have done so and b) it’s necessary to tell a worthy story. After reading Summer at Tiffany, what do you think? Did the book justify any liberties that Hart took?

5. In our era we continually hear that it’s “healthy” to express your feelings, even if they might upset others. Hart grew up with different values: “It’s important not to disappoint anyone, or make them worry.” [Page 248] Does she seem to have suffered from this? Why or why not?

6. Do you think your parents and grandparents have the same view of this book that you would? Why or why not?

7. Some of Hart’s experiences have an underside she doesn’t deal with. For example, all of the women in the photo of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority are white. Should Hart have explored these issues? Or would that have made it a different book?

8. Late in the book, Hart has to decide whether to accept a scholarship to Yale that, she says, arose suddenly. Does she give you enough information to understand why she made the choice she did? What factors seemed most important to her decision? Would you have made the same choice?

9. Hart offers vibrant glimpses of her small-town and of Manhattan in the 1940s. For example, after the Queen Mary brought thousands of soldiers back from Europe, the Red Cross gave out 35,000 half-pint cartons of milk because the servicemen and -women seldom had milk overseas. [Page 80] What details do you remember best? Why did they make an impression on you?

10. The caption for the last photo in the book tells us that after visiting Tiffany’s in the winter of 1945, Hart didn’t return until 2004. Apparently it wasn’t because she couldn’t afford the trip. Does it seem remarkable that she didn’t go back sooner? What might explain her delayed return? Have you ever avoided going back to a place where you were happy? Why?

Vital statistics:
Summer at Tiffany. By Marjorie Hart. Morrow, 258 pp., $14.95.

A review of Summer at Tiffany appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 2, 2007 It is saved both with the June posts and in the “Memoirs” category on the site.

Your book group may also want to read:
The Bell Jar (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, $16.95, paperback). By Sylvia Plath. This satirical novel about a young woman’s nervous breakdown fictionalizes the author’s stint as a guest editor of Mademoiselle in the 1950s. Plath’s experiences in the city were so different from Hart’s that you might enjoy comparing the two books.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but no on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 6, 2007

Peter Godwin’s Memoir of Terror in Africa, ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:10 pm
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When tragedy struck the author’s family and others in Zimbabwe

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little Brown, 334 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors inflicted on his family and others during the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Godwin’s older sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. No one can know the full effects of that tragedy on his mother, a doctor, and his father, an engineer, among the last wave of English immigrants to arrive before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. But if Helen and George Godwin thought their lives couldn’t get worse, they were wrong.

The terror escalated after voters defeated a Mugabe-backed referendum to extend presidential term limits in 2000. Mugabe sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct, torture and murder his opponents. His victims included a white farmer, the husband of a Godwin family friend, who was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father, old and ill, was beaten outside his home by thugs who took his car and wallet. A woman who had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned with goons after her retirement and demanded money. The elder Godwins installed a “rape gate” to seal off their bedrooms in case their home was invaded.

Why didn’t the couple leave Zimbabwe? Godwin suggests that they stayed partly because his father had decided, as a young man, to suppress his Polish-Jewish roots after his mother and sister died at Treblinka. Africa allowed him to be “a new man.” That may be true. But this aspect of his parents’ decision seems slightly overplayed in the book. Godwin doesn’t quite persuade you that there weren’t more important factors in their unwillingness to leave than his father’s submerged Jewish roots. Many whites stayed without having such tangled backgrounds. And so few people want to relocate late in life that, at least in the U.S., most people do not move to another state in retirement but stay close to home. Perhaps the Godwins dreaded returning to England’s soggy climate after living for so long in a place “where the rose blossoms are as big as babies’ heads.”

It hardly matters to the success of this memoir, which joins We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families in the first rank of personal encounters with Africa. For all his family lost, Godwin writes poignantly — and with occasional bleak humor – about Zimbabwe. On a trip to Victoria Falls he visits a backpackers’ gathering spot and sees, amid the tourist brochures, a jar with a label that reads: “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.”

“Inside is a single foil wrapper,” Godwin writes. “Years too late, Zimbabwe has launched an AIDS education campaign.”

The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun refers to the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a celestial crocodile eats the sun, and it suggests the parallel eclipses of Godwin’s parents and Zimbabwe. Another metaphor presents itself when Godwin speaks to a doctor about his diabetic father’s gangrenous feet.

“The pain your father feels at present, ischemic pain, is the pain of a muscle being deprived of oxygen,” the physician says. “It is the very worst, most intense kind of pain there is.” Much like that of a nation being deprived of its freedom.

Best line: Godwin writes of flying over Africa in 2003: “Our flight takes us down a continent of catastrophe. Many of the conflicts 30,000 feet below I have covered in my career as a foreign correspondent. It unfolds like a geography of doom. Sierra Leone, where the hacking off of limbs was standard practice; Liberia, where peacekeeping Bangladeshis in blue helmets were struggling to separate teenage gunmen wearing women’s clothing; Ivory Coast, divided between bitter ethnic rivals; Congo, where civil war still raged in a nation that has ceased to be and probably never was; Sudan, where a civil war still rages and triggers frequent spasms of famine; Somalia, which has no government at all now, a country that deserves the description anarchic.”

Worst line: Godwin’s father says: “Being a white here [in Zimbabwe] is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority – the target of ethnic cleansing.” This is one of number of places where Godwin tries to draw needless parallels between African tragedies and others. The terror in Zimbabwe is horrific whether or not it resembles the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Editors: Judy Clain and Marie Salter

Published: April 2007 (first U.S. Edition)

Furthermore: Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. He also wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Grove, 2005), a memoir of his childhood.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 27, 2007

Military Obituaries Worthy of a Memorial Day Salute

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A collection celebrates men and women who wore their uniforms with courage and eccentricity

By Janice Harayda

Digby Tatham-Warter led a bayonet charge during the Battle of Arnhem sporting a bowler hat and an umbrella. Nell Allgrove and other captured Australian nurses survived on two ounces of rice a day in Japanese camps in Sumatra. Charles Fraser-Smith sent golf balls with compasses inside and other gadgets to British prisoners in Germany, an effort so successful that he became the model for “Q” in the James Bond books.

The stories of these and other extraordinary men and women appear in The Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries: Heroes and Adventures (Macmillan, 1993), edited by Hugh Massingberd, the second volume in a series from the British newspaper. Most of the subjects of this book were British or Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, aviators, spies, or nurses, though some never wore a uniform. And their stories show why military-obituary writers at the Telegraph are seen as five-star generals of a vanishing art. Written with verve and candor, the pieces in this book reflect a deep sympathy for both the courage and the eccentricities of their subjects. Few American newspapers would have the wit to begin an obituary like this: “Major General Micky Whistler, who has died aged 83, had a career of remarkable variety in which his cheerful disrespect for pompous and hidebound senior officers brought numerous reprimands, but did much to improve the efficiency and morale of his men.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #1: The 2007 Biography Winner, Debby Applegate’s ‘The Most Famous Man in America’

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Book Reviews,Christianity,History,Pulitzer Prizes,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners of the Pulitzers and other book awards deserved their honors. This site reviewed the 2007 Caldecott Medalist, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, on Jan. 22 and the 2007 Newbery Medalist, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky on Feb. 19 (reading group guide posted on Feb. 22).

Title: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday hardcover, 527 pp., $27.95, and Three Leaves paperback, 560 pp., $16.95.

What it is: The biography of the most famous preacher of the 19th century, who was also an abolitionist and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Winner of … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography

Was this one of those book awards that make you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the editor or publisher had pornographic home videos of all of them? No

Worthy of a major award? Yes

Comments: This is a terrific biography I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t won a Pulitzer. I intended to read only a few chapters and include the book in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” category on this site. But I became swept up quickly in its story of a witty and lovable but flawed preacher and the remarkable Beecher family. Near the end of his life Henry Ward Beecher became entangled in a sex scandal that led to a lurid trial and adds interest at a point when many biographies lose steam. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this book was an understanding of how the Puritan focus on a wrathful deity gave way to the view of God as a loving presence that exists today. Debby Applegate makes a good case that Beecher was the prime mover in this tectonic shift. She writes in a conversational tone that keeps this book from becoming stuffy but occasionally leads to a phrase that sounds anachronistic in context, such as: “Henry’s first two years as a minister had been a mixed bag.”

Best line: See below.

Worst line: The title of Chapter 12, which comes from a popular rumor: “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight of His Mistresses Every Sunday Evening.” This might be the best line if it matched the text. But on one page Applegate quotes a man as saying that “Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” Two pages later, she quotes another man who says, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.” The chapter title seems to be a corruption of the two quotes. I’m inclined to cut Applegate some slack on this one, because she may have found many versions of this rumor, but not the copy editor whose job it was to catch such discrepancies.

Recommended if … you like Civil War–era history and are looking for book with wider scope than Manhunt, which I also liked. Highly recommended to history book clubs.

Editor: Gerald Howard

Published: June 2006 (Doubleday hardcover), April 2007 (Three Leaves paperback).

Links: You can read the first chapter and watch a C-SPAN interview with Applegate at

Furthermore: Debby Applegate has taught at Yale and Wesleyan universities. Her book was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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