One-Minute Book Reviews

June 22, 2012

Good Paperbacks for $16 or Less – Books for Your Economic Recovery

Filed under: Fiction,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:10 pm
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Get sand in your shoes, not in the gears of your Nook or Kindle, at the beach this summer

By Janice Harayda

Have you noticed that many of this year’s summer reading lists sound as though they were written for the economic boom times of the Reagan era? Some of the most prominent round-ups have consisted only or mainly of new hardcovers with $25–$30 price tags. Yes, those books may have had $9.99 digital editions. But do you want to drip suntan oil onto — or get sand in the gears of — a Nook or Kindle? If not, here are some of the best recent paperbacks that you can buy for $16 or less.

Fiction
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Deborah Moggach. A group of spirited British men and men women move to a retirement home in India in a comic novel that has a thicker plot and sharper wit than the 2012 movie based loosely on its story.

Drawing Conclusions (Penguin Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Donna Leon. The humane Venice police investigator Guido Brunetti makes his 20th appearance in a mystery about the murder of a widow whose art works have disappeared, a book that Library Journal called “literary crime fiction at its best.”

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011), by Yiyun Li. Intelligent Chinese men and women maintain hope against the odds while trapped by circumstances fostered by a repressive Beijing government (“Souvenir”) or difficult upbringings (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”) in a collection of nine elegant short stories.

The Imperfectionists (Dial Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011) by Tom Rachman. Staff members at an English-language newspaper in Rome face the decline of their publication in a collection of tragicomic parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of love and work in a digital age. Their grief doesn’t keep them from writing headlines such as “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.”

Nonfiction
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner paperbacks, $16, 2011), by S.C. Gwynne. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, S.C. Gwynne tells the story of the fall of the Comanches in a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He filters their decline through the lives Quanah Parker, their last great chief; Quanah’s white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Misson of World War II (HarperPerennial paperbacks, $15.99, 2012), by Mitchell Zuckoff. Never mind that the “most incredible rescue mission” of World War II took place on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mitchell Zuckoff has written an exciting and fast-paced account of how in the last days of World War II, the U.S. Army rescued service members stranded when their military plane crashed into a mountainous rainforest in New Guinea, where pythons grew to 15 feet and the natives were believed to practice cannibalism.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed paperbacks, £15, 2011), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. An English biographer has written a captivating history of a London boys’ school that thrived despite an eccentric headmaster and a staff of largely untrained teachers. Yes, £15 is slightly more than $16, but this book has had too little attention in the U.S. It deserves a break.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau paperbacks, $16, 2012), by Barbara Demick. A Los Angeles Times reporter won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for this remarkable portrait of North Korean defectors and the lives they had led under Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Demick shows the catastrophic effects of one of the world’s most repressive regimes as she tells the stories of six people who escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

June 13, 2012

‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ – The True Story of an Eccentric Headmaster and His Beloved English Boys’ School

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
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A captivating portrait of “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse” 

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School. By Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes. Illustrations by Kath Walker. Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A nun once stuffed young Bruce Springsteen into a garbage can because, a biographer reports, “that’s where you belong.” Such incidents abound in books about American Catholic education in the middle decades of the 20th century and tend to turn them into horror stories or bleak comedies of errors that wrest humor from pain.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is something rare: a book about a Catholic school that is at heart a love story. This captivating history of St Philip’s in South Kensington has its share of anecdotes that might horrify anyone unfamiliar with how common such episodes once were at English boys’ schools – pants-down beatings with a slipper, meals of Spam and watery mashed potatoes that all children had to eat, and cricket games played in frigid weather in just a shirt and itchy wool shorts, with underpants forbidden. The book also offers ample hilarity in its teachers’ efforts to control what a former student called “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse.”

But the eccentric founding headmaster and staff of St Philip’s loved their charges in a way that, to judge by the sparkling anecdotes gathered by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, was largely reciprocated. Richard Tibbits and his “ragbag of untrained teachers” had a quality that rarely surfaces in books about American parochial schools: They were human. American Catholic students of his era were taught mainly by nuns whose flesh-and-blood realities remained a perpetual source of mystery. It was far from uncommon for young children to ask their parents, on first glimpsing their new teachers in black habits and stiff white wimples, “Do nuns go to the bathroom?”

No one would have been likely to ask that question about Tibbits, who resembled “a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig” and was known for “extreme strictness” mixed with “the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls.” Nor would anyone have asked it about his wife, who chain-smoked Benson & Hedges as she presided over the ground-floor corridor in a nylon housecoat.

The Tibbitses attracted teachers with similar quirks. A retired Cockney customs officer, flush with his wife’s money, taught math and boasted, “I could buy the whole lot of you out.” A beautiful Polish princess arrived as a maternity-leave replacement for one of the few women on hand and fell in love with the geography instructor. John Tregear, the French teacher, “wore black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers.” He leaps to immortality in one of the witty line drawings by Kath Walker that add as much charm to this book as Arthur Watts’s do to E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.

Richard Tibbits had founded St Philip’s in 1934 as an academy for the 7-to-13-year-old sons of middle and upper class Catholics, many of whom attended Mass at the Brompton Oratory, and his teaching methods suited that group. As late as the mid-1960s, the school had no classes in biology or chemistry because, Tibbits said, “Gentlemen do not study science.” When St Philip’s finally dipped its toe into such fields, its approach might have struck some people as curious – students, for example, learned to make gunpowder. The school had crucifixes and pictures of the Pope on the walls, but it welcomed doubters with a warmth rare in American Catholic schools of its era, where many jokes involved variations on the words “Protestant” and “prostitute.”

For all of this, St Philip’s had high educational and spiritual standards that boys strived to uphold. One former student told Maxtone Graham that at the age of seven he was reading Treasure Island: “You were expected to be good at drawing, good at reading, interested in foreign lands.” The high-achieving the families associated with the school suggest that students met those standards: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes attended St Philip’s, the biographer Antonia Fraser sent her son, Orlando, there, and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mother taught singing. Maxtone Graham has rewarded the trust of those who spoke with her by writing a history distinguished by the perfection of its tone: She writes in the first person, so that her story reads like a memoir, but keeps her focus on St Philip’s. In its casual tone, her book resembles many English schoolboy stories less than Diana Athill’s recent memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End. Mr Tibbit’s Catholic School might have been called Somewhere Towards the End of the Reign of Richard Tibbits.

St Philip’s began to change after Tibbits’s died in 1967, and the process sped up in the 1980s as a new generation of working mothers dared to suggest improvements the old regime would not have tolerated, such as the purchase of a computer. But the fearless spirit of the school endures in its administrators’ willingness to display on its website this melodious hymn to its idiosyncrasies, a book that shows how much American and other schools lose when they impose enough restrictions to drive away the most gifted and creative teachers. Ninety percent of the teachers at St Philip’s were “certifiable,” the historian  and former student Adam Zamoyski admits. “They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.”

Best line: All. An example: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Worst line: None. But a few more details on some would have been welcome. The book notes, for example, that Antonia Fraser was a school mother but not whether she sent all her sons there or just one.

Publication date: 2011

Learn more about the book on the publisher’s websiteMr Tibbits’s Catholic School is available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York. Allison Pearson wrote about the book in the Telegraph.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs. Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 29, 2012

Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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Current methods of treating ovarian cancer are “a scandal,” a scholar says

Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer. By Susan Gubar. Norton, 296 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Susan Gubar once hoped to die as swiftly as a relative found dead in her seat by ushers at the Metropolitan Opera House after a performance of Aida. She won’t get her wish.

Gubar was 63 years old and looking forward to retiring from an influential teaching career when she learned in late 2008 that she had Stage III epithelial ovarian cancer. Most women her age who develop the disease die within three years of the diagnosis. Doctors nonetheless treat them with draconian procedures that include “debulking” surgery, which reduces the size of tumors that can’t be removed completely. Such efforts, Gubar came to believe, may “destroy the pleasures of existence” for someone who gains few or no benefits from them.

Is the misery worth it? Gubar often sounds ambivalent as she describes the catastrophes that occurred during and after her debulking. Her calamities began with a bowel perforation during her operation. That mishap led to an ileostomy and to surgical drain irrigations that, she says, “exceeded any level of suffering I thought imaginable” and that morphine couldn’t touch. Afterward she kept “getting sucked into procedure after procedure, each with its ghastly physical repercussions.”

Gubar explains her repeated acquiescence partly by saying that she had two grown daughters who weren’t ready to lose her and that her treatments fostered a helplessness born of pain, fatigue, depression, and sedation. But you sense that there is more to it than that. Gubar calls herself a secular Jew “with no conventional religious faith to speak of.” Did she unwittingly turn medicine into her God? Did her lack of belief in an afterlife make it harder to let go of barbarous treatments? She asks but never satisfactorily answers the question: “how can those of us without firm religious convictions integrate the awareness and actuality of death and dying into our lives?” On the subject of faith, she offers what she acknowledges are “garbled” views such as: “I will love my family until death departs, and since death will never depart, I will love them always and forever.” What on Earth does “until death departs” mean?

In Memoir of a Debulked Woman Gubar interweaves her story with an overview of ovarian cancer in history and literature and with a polemic against the woeful state of treatments for it.  This approach gives her book a breadth lacking in most illness narratives while depriving it of the sharp focus of cancer memoirs such as Joyce Wadler’s My Breast and Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness. Much of the writing is stilted, repetitive, and padded with irrelevant anecdotes about Gubar’s family and friends. It would have benefited from a few pages on how doctors in other industrialized countries treat ovarian cancer.

But what Memoir of a Debulked Woman lacks lacks finesse, it makes up for in importance. No first-person account offers a more comprehensive description of the dismal options for women with late-stage ovarian cancer or makes a more passionate case that the current methods of treating it are “a scandal.” And in an age of medical overkill, those women share many of the dilemmas of patients who have other cancers with low three-year survival rates and who must decide whether to have potentially soul-destroying treatments. This gives the book a relevance that goes beyond the disease at its center.

Gubar’s cancer is in remission, an article in USA Today said last month, so her treatments seem to have extended her life at least slightly beyond what she could have expected. But her memoir makes clear that the precious extra months have come at a price that not everyone would want to pay. Gubar says that, when she’s feeling cynical, she believes that fifty years from now “doctors will look back at the treatment of ovarian cancer today and judge it medieval.” Her book should hasten that process.

Best line: No. 1: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.” No. 2: Gubar offers a good list of “the cockamamie conundrums confronted by people treated for ovarian cancer” (although “cockamamie” is too light-hearted a word for some of them). Among them: Debulking surgery calls for surgeons to remove, while a patient is under general anesthesia, any organs to which the ovarian cancer has spread. So women don’t know beforehand which body parts they will lose and can’t “decide that they would prefer not to … risk the high rate of postoperative complication.”

Worst line: No. 1: Gubar criticizes Joan Acocella (who called her an “amateur” who spouts “shocking nonsense” in The New Yorker) in a way that makes her look worse than Acocella. No. 2: One of many padded sentences: “The radiologist inserted the thick tube into the center of my right buttock: in the Midwest, ‘the butt'; in New York, ‘the tush'; in the South, ‘the bottom'; in fancy French, ‘the derrière'; in pseudo-science, ‘the gluteus maximus'; on the street, ‘the ass'; in Don’s jokey repetition of the nurse’s word, ‘the bee-hind.'”

Caveat lector: Gubar warns: “For those who have reason to believe or need to believe that their cancer is curable, please remember that this book is not about you.”

Published: April 2012

About the author: Gubar is the co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.co

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 18, 2012

What I’m Reading … Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,What I'm Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (Norton, 296 pp., $24.95), by Susan Gubar.

What it is: A feminist scholar’s memoir of the medical “calamities” she endured after undergoing the standard medical treatment for advanced ovarian cancer, known as debulking surgery.

Why I’m reading it: Few authors have written in depth about having advanced ovarian cancer, partly because few women survive the disease long enough to do it.

Quote from the book: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: April 2012

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman or learn more about the book.

About the author: Gubar co-write The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a book widely used in college classes.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

April 10, 2012

‘We Band of Angels’: The True Story of Nurses Who Became Prisoners of War

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
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A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy

We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.

Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”

Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”

Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.

Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.

About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York UniversityWe Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.

Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.

Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:59 am
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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 26, 2011

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


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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

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

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

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 12, 2011

Part 2 – Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists — The Nonfiction Shortlist

Filed under: National Book Awards,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:45 am
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This is the second in a series of posts that try to predict the winners of National Book Awards on the basis on online excerpts of the finalists. 

By Janice Harayda

How much do excerpts tell you about a book? A lot. But excerpts from nonfiction books are harder to judge than chapters from novels, partly because they may not show errors that undermine the whole. And the strength of the writing in work of nonfiction may differ from the quality or importance of the research. Who should win a literary prize: the author of a beautifully written book on a minor subject or a cliché-strewn one that breaks ground on a major topic?

Such variables suggest why predicting the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction on the basis of excerpts is tougher than ranking the fiction candidates as I did on Nov. 2. One book shortlisted for the prize to be given on Nov. 16  looks like a nonstarter: Mary Gabriel tells the worthy story of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx in her dual biography, Love and Capital, but her writing doesn’t rise above the level good wire-service copy in five online excerpts.

Two other finalists have more serious problems. Deborah Baker rewrote letters that she quotes in The Convert — a book she calls “fundamentally a work of nonfiction” — and the liberties she took should have led to a disqualification by the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation. Judges also shoehorned in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, a graphic-format biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which has art far superior to its text. The National Book Awards are based on the premise that authors should judge authors. If that’s true, artists should judge artists. And if the National Book Foundation wants to honor graphic  books, it should create a category for them. As it is, a victory for Redniss would turn the nonfiction prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

All of this leaves two finalists worthy of the award: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which shows how a poem written in 50 B.C. anticipated 20th-century thought, and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, a biography of the slain activist. Greenblatt writes more elegantly, but Manning’s book may be more important. American literature has needed for decades a biography that gives a more balanced portrait of Malcolm X than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work influenced by ghostwriter Alex Haley’s view of his subject, and Manning has written it. It’s harder to argue that the country needed Greenblatt’s exploration of De rerum natura, however admirable. So if excerpts are a barometer,  the contest for 2011 nonfiction prize looks like a two-way race between The Swerve and Malcolm X, with Manning’s book more likely to win.

More comments on the five finalists appear in the following slightly altered versions of Nov. 11 tweets. Each item below is a micro-review of one or more excerpts of a shortlisted book, supplemented in two cases by further reading.

Love and Capital Good story of Karl and Jenny Marx, wire-service writing. Grade: B Based on this excerpt and others.

The Swerve The most elegant finalist shakes the dust off Lucretius. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Radioactive Art far better than the text. Graphic books need their own NBA category. No grade. Based on the entire book.

Malcolm X Slow-moving but much needed antidote to Alex Haley. Grade: B+ Based
on this excerpt and and two more chapters.

The Convert A “fundamentally” nonfiction book that belongs on Oprah, not the NBA shortlist. Grade: F for judges. Based on 100+ pages of the book.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she will post other comments on the awards before and after the Nov. 16 ceremony. Jan has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2011

‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – The True Story of the Last Comanche Chief, His White Mother and the Texans Who Hunted for Them

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:46 am
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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

No Indians of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches. Nomadic warriors who liked to attack under a full moon, they inspired terror with their horned buffalo-wool caps and their ability to fire arrows while clinging to the sides of horses. They gang-raped women, speared babies with lances, and tortured male captives, sometimes by burning them to death. After a massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.”

In this worthy finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, S.C. Gwynne denies neither these atrocities nor the many betrayals by whites that helped to foster the warriors’ thirst for vengeance. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, he tells the story of the fall of the Comanches through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Of those three lives, only Quanah’s did not end in tragedy, and Empire of the Summer Moon shows the cost of the American ideal of Manifest Destiny both to those who pursued it and to those who obstructed it. Few stereotypes of Indians have proved more tenacious than that of the “noble savage,” but Gwynne shows that among native tribes as among whites, extraordinary courage often went hand-in-hand with comparable ignobility.

Best line: One passage describes what Comanches did after they gang-raped and shot several arrows into Martha Sherman, a white settler who was nine months pregnant: “They scalped her alive by making deep cuts below her ears and, in effect, peeling the top of her head entirely off.”

Worst line: In a rare descent into sentimentality and cliché, Gwynne writes of Cynthia Ann after whites recaptured her: “And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”

Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover), May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Read an excerpt from Empire of the Summer Moon.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on this site on Oct. 3, 2011.

Furthermore: Empire of the Summer Moon was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Cynthia Ann Parker’s capture provided part of the inspiration for in the movie The Searchers.

You may also want to read: The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America 

You can follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the follow button in the right sidebar. Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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