One-Minute Book Reviews

June 21, 2013

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 6, 2013

The Bagpipes of D-Day – ‘Highland Laddie’ at Sword Beach

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:27 pm
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Like great novelists, great war correspondents know that people make the story. One who never forgot it was Cornelius Ryan, the Dublin-born reporter and author of the classic account of the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster, 1959).

Ryan’s book is less about military tactics and strategy than about their effect on people — from the German high command to a French schoolmistress and the American paratrooper who tumbled into her garden just after midnight on June 6, 1944. One of the most remarkable characters in The Longest Day is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, the Scottish brigade commander who, with his bagpiper and fellow commandos, went ashore Sword Beach. This paragraph from the book describes the scene:

“As the commandos touched down on Sword, Lord Lovat’s piper, William Millin, plunged off his landing craft into water up to his armpits. He could see smoke piling up from the beach ahead and hear the crump of exploding mortar shells. As Millin floundered toward shore, Lovat shouted at him, ‘Give us “Highland Laddie,” man!’ Waist-deep in water, Millin put his mouthpiece to his lips and splashed through the surf, the pipes keening crazily. At the water’s edge, oblivious to the gunfire, he halted and, parading up and down the beach, piped the commandos ashore. The men streamed past him, and mingling with the whine of bullets and the screams of shells came the wild skirl of the pipes as Millin now played, ‘The Road to the Isles.’ ‘That’s the stuff, Jock,’ yelled a commando. Said another, ‘Get down, you mad bugger.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2013

A Theater Critic Celebrates the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:14 pm
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“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!

The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”

In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story — and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”

Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare  virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.

Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”

Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.

Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Leon is a columnist for Playbill who has written theater criticism for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 22, 2013

‘Being Dead Is No Excuse’: An Irreverent Guide to Southern Funerals

Filed under: How to,Humor,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased.  And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)

More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that  transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”

Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”

Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?

Published: 2005

Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).

Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

January 1, 2013

‘Gideon’s Trumpet’ – A Nonfiction Classic About a Landmark Legal Case

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:32 pm
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How a destitute prisoner’s handwritten letter to the Supreme Court made history

Gideon’s Trumpet. By Anthony Lewis. Vintage, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

None of the rights of a defendant is more pervasive than the right to have a lawyer, a judge once said, “for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.” The accused won this vital safeguard in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case that had one of the unlikeliest beginnings in American legal history.

Fifty years ago a poor, indignant prisoner in Florida wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court – in pencil, on lined prison paper – saying that he had been denied the right to a lawyer when convicted. The court agreed to hear his case and held that the Constitution required the government to provide counsel in all serious criminal cases for defendants too poor to afford one. Clarence Earl Gideon won the right to a new trial, this time with a lawyer, and a jury acquitted him in just over an hour.

Anthony Lewis’ story of Gideon v. Wainwright glows with humanity, intelligence and the elegance of the judicial system at its best. Clarence Gideon, “tossed aside by life,” burned with a sense of injustice. Abe Fortas brought to his court-appointed role as the prisoner’s champion a heady mix of intellectual sophistication, a passion for his cause and the resources of a top-tier Washington law firm. Assistant Attorney General Bruce Jacob of Florida was so overmatched with Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, that in Lewis’ hands he earns sympathy even as he argues that giving the accused the right to counsel would cost too much and “be requiring the states to adopt socialism.” The Supreme Court acquires a personality of its own – dignified yet less stuffy than is often imagined — as Lewis explains the factors that affected the outcome of Gideon, including legal precedent, oral argument and friend-of-the-court briefs.

The Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Gideon’s favor on March 18, 1963, and in 2003 Lewis rightly noted in an essay marking its 40th anniversary that, in important ways, the U.S. has failed to honor the justices’ intent. “Many states and localities offer not even the minimal level of support needed for an adequate defense,” he said. “And far too often the lawyers provided for indigent defendants have not met the barest standards of competence.” Those failures do not diminish the achievement of this great book, a beautifully written portrait of a moment when the U.S. government honored one of the noblest of American ideals: that all people deserve equal protection under the law. It is a heartening reminder that, sometimes, the system works.

Best line: “Justice [Robert H. Jackson], who was one of the great oral advocates of his day before he went on the bench, said in his wonderfully astringent style that he felt ‘there should be some comfort derived in any question from the bench. It is clear proof that any inquiring justice is not asleep.’”

Worst line: It seems churlish to pick one in such a fine book, but Lewis writes that a case in Washington State “broke important new ground in federal-state relations” when the “new” isn’t necessary.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to all. An outstanding choice for history book clubs and other reading groups that like high-quality nonfiction with a strong narrative drive.

Published: 1964 (Random House), 1989 (Vintage paperback). Much of the book first appeared first appeared in somewhat different form in The New Yorker.

Furthermore: Gideon’s Trumpet won the 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best fact crime book. Anthony Lewis laments the government’s failure to fulfill the promise of Gideon V. Wainwright in a New York Times essay, “The Silencing of Gideon’s Trumpet.” (Adam Liptak gives more recent examples of that failure in “Lawyers Stumble, and Clients Take Fall,” a New York Times article that deals in part with a death-row inmate whose lawyer “was on probation for public intoxication” and “battling a crippling drug addiction” to crystal methamphetamine while representing his client.) Henry Fonda played Clarence Earl Gideon in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie of the novel. You can read more about Gideon v. Wainwright at

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2012

Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ – A World War II POW’s Tale

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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An American bombardier spent 47 days on a raft and became a prisoner of war 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 473 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

As a child, Louis Zamperini stole from neighbors and hid his plunder so the police wouldn’t catch him with it. Unbroken leaves the impression that, in his 90s, he is still keeping evidence under wraps.

Zamperini cooperated with Laura Hillenbrand on this swashbuckling account of his life as an Olympic runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days on a raft and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the book requires you to take more on trust than did its author’s Seabiscuit. Can a man whose parents tried to raise him as a Catholic really not have known the Hail Mary and, while sharks circled his raft, had to recite “snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies”? Can his horrific postwar nightmares have evaporated after he found God at a Billy Graham revival meeting?

Even with 50 pages of end notes, the book doesn’t put those questions to rest. While best biographies demythologize their subjects, this one invests its hero with the qualities less of a mortal than of Bunyan-esque folk hero.

Best line: No. 1: “In Torrance, a one-boy insurgency was born.” No. 2: “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent on those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Worst line: “Louie was hauled into the principal’s office for the umpteenth time.” “For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft.” Hillenbrand tends to overwrite: In both cases, she needed only to say “again.”

If you like Unbroken, you might also like: Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Published: November 2010

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
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 make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like 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.

Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a portrait of a Mumbai slum in which poverty and corruption go hand in hand. She tells the true story of Abdul Husain, a young garbage trader framed for the death of an embittered neighbor, and the rigged judicial system he faced. In doing so she challenges the myth that India’s rapid rise derives in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch,” Boo writes. “In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.” Boo shows that if instability can foster ingenuity, it can also heighten despair in people whose efforts to improve their lives yield few results. A resident of Annawadi summed up a theme of the book when she said: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.”

10 Discussion Questions for Behind the Beautiful Forevers:

1. If you had been one of the National Book Awards judges, what arguments would you have made for or against giving a prize to this book?

2. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?

3. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?

4. Boo cuts back and forth between the stories of people she writes about, a technique that can slow a book down by breaking its momentum. Did this one maintain a pace that kept you reading? What held your attention?

5. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively?

6. Boo has said in interviews that the big question she wanted to explore in this book was, in an age of globalization, “Who gets out of poverty, and why?” What is her answer?

7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?

8. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?

9. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?

10. Boo is clearly trying at times to merge her voice and point of view with that of her sources. For example, at times she uses the word “bitty” for small, and she speaks of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced, language you would be more likely to hear from children or teenagers than from a staff writer for The New Yorker. In other places, she is clearly writing in her own adult voice. How well did her approach work?

1. If you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, what image of Indian slums did you get from the film? Did this book change it? Does Behind the Beautiful Forevers complement or clash with Slumdog Millionaire?

2. You may have seen other movies about modern India, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If so, what did you learn from Behind the Beautiful Forevers that you didn’t learn from those films?

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows poverty in a different light than do many international relief organizations. These groups often suggest that small donations, such as “pennies a day,” can change a child’s life. Did this book change your view of such promises? Would you be more or less likely to contribute to a charity that helped Mumbai slum children after reading this book?

Vital statistics:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27. Published: February 2012.

A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on [Date TK] in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

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. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 2, 2012

‘Against Wind and Tide’ – The Double Life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier books

Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947–1986. By Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Edited and with an introduction by Reeve Lindbergh. Pantheon, 358 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Seven years ago a German division of Random House dimmed the halo of an American hero when it published The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh. Author Rudolf Schroeck reported that the aviator had fathered seven children by three European women while married to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Genetic testing confirmed some of his claims, and Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest child of Charles and Anne, later wrote of meeting her half-siblings in her memoir Forward From Here.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh also led double life, bisected by emotion rather than biology, in which a public serenity often hid a deep private anxiety. Nothing shows the gap between her inner and outer lives better than the sixth and final volume of her letters and journals, which contains material Lindbergh wrote between the ages of 41 and 79. She says in a diary entry made in 1955, nearly a quarter-century after the kidnapping and death of her infant son:

“I have become a kind of symbol – a Mother figure to the American public – because I married their Hero – is it? – or because I lost a child?”

Lindbergh added that she felt “gummed into a frame – Whistler’s Mother, complete with rocking chair and folded hands.” The near-perfection that Americans projected onto her belied a pain caused in part by her husband’s selfishness and long, frequent, and unexplained absences in the last decades of their life together.

In Against Wind and Tide Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier letters and diaries. He refuses to return from a trip when she has difficult knee surgery. He at first balks at attending his older daughter’s wedding because, his wife writes to the hurt bride-to-be, “your father never goes to ceremonies of any kind” (which can hardly have comforted her after he attended a White House dinner the previous year). And he leaves his wife alone for days in a primitive and isolated house they had built on Maui, an A-frame dwelling shared with rats. “They seem to eat everything – soap, curtains, plastic covers to the cookie jars, shoes, etc. – everything but poison,” she writes. “At night I am scared and read late and take a pill – but in the daytime I don’t mind much.” At least once Charles Lindbergh’s behavior prompted his wife to consider leaving her marriage.

Did Lindbergh know that her husband had affairs during his absences? If Reeve Lindbergh has the answer, she doesn’t say so in her introduction to Against Wind and Tide. Nor does she directly confirm that, as A. Scott Berg reported in Lindbergh, her mother had an extramarital affair with her doctor, Dana Atchley, to whom she wrote many letters included in Against Wind and Tide. With Clinton-esque sophistry, Reeve Lindbergh says that while she believes her mother had “love affairs,” they may have been “affairs more of words than caresses.”

That coyness doesn’t diminish the appeal of Against Wind and Tide. Lindbergh’s letters and diaries form a portrait of wise and loving woman’s lifelong efforts to reconcile her loyalty to her family with her need for independence and rewarding work, a theme she also developed in Gift From the Sea. Lindbergh had an exceptional gift for observing and reflecting on her experiences, whether she was attending a state dinner or walking “in the mild damp golden afternoon” near her home in Darien, Conn. She makes you see a famous image of Jacqueline Kennedy afresh when she writes of White House dinner: “Mrs. Kennedy swept in like a queen, looking extremely beautiful in a long pink stiff gown, hair high and stiff – rather Japanese – with a diamond star” set into it.  And her hard-won perspectives on widowhood and growing old offer an implicit and refreshing challenge to pop-psychological banalities about what Americans euphemistically call “aging.” Lindbergh writes that spending part of the year in a different climate in later life, as many retirement experts recommend, “makes the other months seem rather more unbearable than they were before.” Clinging to an old neighborhood may not help, either: “One really needs a very different rhythm at our age, and it is difficult to reestablish it in the old place.”

Lindbergh died in 2001 at the age of 94 and, besides the posthumously published Against Wind and Tide, wrote 13 books while married to a man who might ask her to fly  on a moment’s notice to the Philippines to meet Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. And many of the most perceptive comments in the new volume deal with her struggle to maintain a literary career in such unpredictable circumstances. She writes to a friend whose work on a book appears to have stalled: “Remember that big creative act of taking hold of your life freshly and adventurously, as you have just done, takes up much of the creative energy you have. It cannot help but use it up.” No small part of the appeal of this book is that for all her sorrows, Lindbergh kept trying to confront life “freshly and adventurously.”

Best line: No. 1: “I cannot see what I have gone through until I write it down. I am blind without a pencil.” No. 2: “I am convinced that you must write as if no one were ever going to see it. Write it all, as personally and specifically as you can, as deeply and honestly as you can. … In fact, I think it is the only true way to reach the universal, through the knot-hole of the personal. So do, do go ahead and write it as it boils up: the hot lava from the unconscious. Don’t stop to observe, criticize, or be ‘ironic.’ Just write it, like a letter, without rereading. Later, one can decide what to do.”

Worst line: From Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction: “I was certainly amazed to learn, a few years after my mother’s death, that my father had several relationships with other women during his travels in the 1950s and 1960s, and that there were children from these relationships. However, it did not surprise me at all to learn from these children, when I met them, that the paternal pattern was the same for them …” “There were children”? How many? Lindbergh may have dealt with this in her Forward From Here, but she’s leaving readers of Against Wind and Tide in the dark.

Published: April 2012

Read Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction to Against Wind and Tide.

Furthermore: The Associated Press ran a story on The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh in 2005. The New York Times ran a long obituary for Anne Morrow Lindbergh that includes excerpts from her Gift From the Sea and North to the Orient.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda

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